Atlantic Packaging has developed recyclable paper-padded mailers.
Atlantic Packaging has developed recyclable paper-padded mailers.
Atlantic Packaging

A driving force behind packaging design

The president of North Carolina-based Atlantic Packaging offers his perspective on what is influencing packaging producers and brands to design more sustainable packaging.

December 30, 2021

For 75 years, privately held Atlantic Packaging has serviced a variety of industrial and consumer product companies. The Wilmington, North Carolina-based packaging producer has provided solutions for companies in the food, electronics, apparel, automotive, medical and e-commerce industries.

Early on in Atlantic Packaging’s history, Carter says, sustainability was less of a focus. For a long time, many companies would only focus on designing sustainable packaging if it provided cost savings. “Historically, the packaging industry did not design packaging for recycling. We were designing packaging for cost, convenience and brand promotion,” he says.

But, in the last decade, Carter says sustainability has become much more of a driving force behind packaging design.

“I work closely with a lot of our strategic customers—consumer product companies—to support their goals as brands,” Carter says. “Over the last several years, those conversations have revolved more around sustainability.”

Today, the company prioritizes developing solutions that are recyclable, incorporate recycled content or use sustainably sourced materials. Carter says Atlantic Packaging has helped bring to market fully recyclable padded and nonpadded mailers for e-commerce. He adds that the company is currently working with a retailer to develop a 100-percent-fiber-based recyclable blister pack.

Recycling Today followed up with Carter to learn more about how the company has increased its focus on incorporating recycled content and designing recyclable packaging as well as trends he has noticed with packaging sustainability.

Recycling Today (RT): At Atlantic Packaging, do you design packaging that incorporates recycled content? Are your packaging designs recyclable?  

Atlantic Packaging

Wes Carter (WC): All of the above. It sort of depends. There are times when virgin materials make better sense. I think people need to understand that in many cases when you add recycled content, it is going to impact the performance of those products. You wouldn’t want to add 30 percent recycled content but have to make the product 40 percent thicker to make it work. So, we really analyze where recycled content makes sense.

There are some places where recycled content can work, but again, the more technical a product is, the greater likelihood there is that recycled content is going to be problematic. … We are working on some paper mailers to put more recycled content in. Our goal is to always have as much recycled content as possible.

The other thing that we are doing is investing in recycling infrastructure ourselves … so we can begin to collect mainly business-to-business packaging. We’re not going to be collecting anything from municipal recycling facilities, but we really believe that the packaging supply chains between businesses are an area where circularity can really work. So, we’re trying to create systems for that because every one of our major consumer products companies is demanding products with recycled content—especially PCR, or postconsumer resin—but there isn’t enough available. What is available is pretty limited in quality because the waste stream is so bad.

Atlantic is trying to create infrastructure to be able to collect some other products between businesses to create postconsumer resin that we can put in other products as well. So, again, we’re focused on multiple areas of the supply chain.

RT: Regarding Atlantic Packaging’s recycling infrastructure investments, has the company designed a facility to recycle business-to-business packaging materials? What are your plans for that program?

WC: At this point, some of this is confidential. But I can tell you that we have made some investments in equipment and  infrastructure to be able to recycle internally at Atlantic. We will be working with strategic customers to collect recyclables and used packaging material that traditionally would end up in a compactor into the landfill and reroute that waste to an Atlantic facility where we can process it into quality PCR. That is a plan we are working on. I can reveal more next year, but that is a direction we are headed in.

RT: What prompted you to invest in recycling infrastructure to handle business-to-business packaging scrap internally?

WC: My personal perspective is that the packaging industry has to take responsibility for the products we sell beyond the sale. Because we have such a global pollution problem, we can’t just say, “Well, we sold the product, and how it’s used and disposed of is no longer our business.” I think that’s really problematic. … If we’re sending a product into the world that has the opportunity to be a pollutant, we need to create systems to keep that from happening. It demands collaboration. The only way a company like Atlantic can create circularity with business-to-business packaging is with collaboration from our customers and our suppliers that make a lot of these products.

RT: Overall, what are challenges to incorporating recycled content into packaging and why?

WC: The big obstacle in recycled content is quality product. You can ask anybody today who is buying postconsumer resin on the open market, and you can go to any major plastics company and say, "Why are you not putting more recycled content into the products that you make?" They say, "We can’t get it. We cannot get quality resin."

I think that’s one thing people don’t understand. In order to make a good product with recycled content, you have to have high-quality recycled content resin. The way to get super high-quality recycled resin is you have to have clean waste streams, and for the most part, we don’t have them in this country.

This is one of the reasons I support plastic taxes—so we can invest in a higher level of recycling. We need recycling infrastructure at the municipal level that is super sophisticated. The cleaner we can get waste, the higher quality recycled resin we can make, the higher quality products we can put into packaging, and the more we can put in. It’s one of the reasons I want to put recycling infrastructure into Atlantic Packaging.

RT: Similarly, what would you say are major challenges with designing packaging that is recyclable and why?

WC: Carbon. The plastics industry really leans into the low carbon footprint of plastic, especially single-use plastic and flexible packaging. So, when you are introducing fiber-based options that are more biodegradable or curbside recyclable, in many cases, the carbon footprint is higher.

My perspective has been that all of the packaging on the planet [releases] less than 1 percent [of] carbon emissions. We’re not going to save the world from climate change by choosing plastic over paper. But that is not well-known. You have this push-pull deal where the plastics industry is really trying to promote carbon because it serves the purpose of selling single-use plastic, and I think it’s disingenuous and a harmful perspective. The process of fiber-based options and paper-based packaging typically has a higher carbon footprint. So, that is one of the biggest challenges. And it’s something I think we need to overcome.

The biggest obstacle is greenwashing this information, and primarily packaging companies creating sustainability stories around the products they sell rather than innovating new products. If you’re a plastics company and just going to take your current portfolio and lean into the carbon footprint argument, I’m not sure that really helps anybody. I also think if you’re a paper packaging company and you just lean into the fact that it’s curbside recyclable but don’t focus on carbon, that’s not really helpful either.

It’s something I’ve been trying to advocate with the paper industry in particular that paper companies need to be carbon neutral. The way you bring the carbon footprint down on a piece of paper is by running paper mills with renewable energy. You may always have a higher carbon footprint on paper versus plastics because there’s more material, but we can bring down the carbon footprint of paper by investing in renewable energy first and foremost. So, there are things like that, which I think are really important for the future of fiber-based packaging.

RT: Last, what are some sustainable solutions that you are optimistic about?

WC: The No. 1 thing we should be optimistic about is because of COVID, consumer awareness around packaging has never been higher. The major brands around the world recognize that. And the brands are cluing into the fact that we are being judged as a brand based on how environmentally friendly our products and packaging are. That is huge. It means that the brands will now have a motivation based on economics and sales to be more sustainable. We live in a consumer society where the consumer drives everything. So, consumer demand will have the biggest impact on this problem more than any other single thing.

We have customers calling us all day long going, “Here’s our portfolio of products. We need more sustainable solutions. What do you recommend?” And so, we are innovating. … I have never seen this level of innovation flowing through the packaging supply chain like we are seeing right now. Everyone is innovating to be more sustainable. I think that’s pretty encouraging.