Strategizing around sustainability

Wes Carter of North Carolina-based Atlantic Packaging offers his perspective on trends related to packaging sustainability.

Photos courtesy of Atlantic Packaging

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

In more recent decades, Atlantic Packaging President Wes Carter says designing packaging for sustainability increasingly has become a priority. Early on in Atlantic Packaging’s history, he says, sustainability was less of a focus, with many companies designing sustainable packaging only if it provided cost savings.

“Historically, the packaging industry did not design packaging for recycling,” Carter continues. “We were designing packaging for cost, convenience and brand promotion.”

But in the last decade, he 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, Atlantic Packaging is more focused on developing solutions that are recyclable, use sustainably sourced materials or use recycled content. Carter says the company helped bring to market fully recyclable padded and nonpadded mailers for e-commerce. It also is working with a retail company to develop a 100 percent fiber-based recyclable blister pack.

Recycling Today talked with Carter to learn more about how Atlantic Packaging 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 or do you use mostly virgin materials but design packaging that is recyclable?

Carter
 

Wes Carter (WC): All of the above. 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. Yet, a lot of products are commodity products where it’s like paper to pack into a box or corrugated boxes.

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 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 the packaging supply chains between businesses is 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. The only really good waste stream right now for postconsumer resin is milk jugs. … If you can find resin made from milk jugs, it’s typically pretty decent quality. But beyond that, it’s difficult.

Atlantic is working to create infrastructure 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: Have you designed a facility that recycles business-to-business packaging materials?

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.

It will probably be fourth quarter of 2022 before we’re up and going, 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?

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.

We have to act as not just a packaging company but also with consumer products and brands in mind that we have to take responsibility for. 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 through collaboration from our customers and our suppliers that make many 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 they can’t get it. We cannot get quality resin from postconsumer quality resin. I think that’s one thing people don’t understand. In order to make good product with recycled content, you need high-quality recycled-content resin.

The way to get super high-quality recycled resin is 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 highly 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: What are some sustainable solutions that you are optimistic about?

WC: The No. 1 thing we should be optimistic about is that 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 brands will now have a motivation based on economics and sales to be more sustainable. We can like it or not, but 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.

This trend is an incredible catalyst for innovation. We have customers calling us all day long saying, “Here’s our portfolio of products. We need more sustainable solutions. What do you recommend?” And so, we are innovating. … I have never seen the 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.

Wes Carter is president of Atlantic Packaging, which is headquartered in Wilmington, North Carolina. More information on the company is available online at www.atlanticpkg.com.

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