A More Sustainable Future For Plastic Packaging With Altium’s Brian Hankin And Sarah Dwyer

Single-use plastics are fast becoming the bane of the consumer product industry. So many of our products today — from beverage and food containers to household cleaning supplies, medical supplies, and even personal toiletries — are delivered in plastic containers which end up in landfills and oceans. It has become a sustainability goal for many corporations around the globe to address and innovate the packaging industry with a goal of reducing packaging overall and making what is still required more recyclable.

I was excited to take a deeper dive into plastic packaging with Altium Packaging’s Brian Hankin, SVP Strategy, Innovation, Marketing at Altium Packaging and Sarah Dwyer, Sustainability Associate. Altium is a leading producer of creative packaging solutions for dairy, water, beverage, food, nutrition, chemicals, automotive, personal care, and healthcare.

Brian and Sarah walked me through what sustainability looks like for the company, how they are helping customers achieve sustainability goals, innovative ways plastic is being recycled for packaging, and what the future of plastic packaging looks like. Their key takeaways are featured below. 

  • What Sustainability Looks Like At Altium Packaging: Sustainability is absolutely critical to who we are and what we do. We are a large manufacturer of rigid plastic containers — anything you would buy in a grocery store, Costco, etc. It might be your laundry detergent bottle, your oil bottle, shampoo, beverage, etc. But sustainability has always been important to us and we try to be an efficient steward of those resources. We also own the second largest recycling company of HTP, which is one of the types of plastics you buy these products in. We are very much part of that circular chain and work with our customers to become more sustainable and encourage them to use these resources efficiently. (1:27)
  • How Altium Partners With Customers To Help Them Achieve Their Sustainability Goals: A lot of our customers have targets where a certain amount of recycled content has to be in their portfolio by a certain date. We also very proactively work with customers and encourage them to lighten weight. Let’s take the standard package that you might buy a gallon of water or milk in. We’ve been working for years to lighten that package. We’ve expanded that light weighting science to other package forms. We have about 10 in the family right now. Take for example a canister, something you might buy wipes in. What we’re able to do is take about 15 to 20% of the weight out. So, it’s using that much less plastic, at the same time, maintaining or improving the product performance so it doesn’t fail at the shelf or in the home as the consumers are using these products. That’s the basic value proposition: how can we take weight out, use less plastic, and, at the same time, improve or maintain performance. (2:30) 
  • How To Determine What Efforts To Focus On: Some of it is driven by our own initiatives and things we think are important in terms of lightweight packaging. At other times, customers will come to us with the desire to meet their sustainability goals. So, we will work with them on that. We’re also doing a fair amount of experimentation and development with biomaterials — additives to make our packaging effective using less virgin resin (virgin plastic). We track all activities and try to assess what is the value add to our company, to our customers, and to our society in terms of helping us to focus on what is most important. We focus on three main pillars to drive our value. The first being optimizing design within our packaging with an entire team dedicated to product design, whether it is light weighting or ensuring these products are suitable for the recycling streams. Our second one is sourcing sustainability. We have 64 manufacturing plants and two of them are recycling plants across North America, to ensure we are close to our customers, which also reduces transportation costs, fuel, as well as carbon emissions. Our last pillar is to support recycling and ensure all of our products are recyclable. Altium currently has a 97% recyclable portfolio. Every day we are striving to increase that number. Under Envision, we process over 100 million pounds of mixed resin to supply to the industry whether it is our customers or even Altium’s plants. Our differentiated product portfolio allows Altium to really build on our sustainability goals and initiatives. (4:32) 
  • How Sustainability Is Embedded Across The Company: Altium definitely sees sustainability as an opportunity for organic growth. Whether it is across our product portfolio or even across the entire organization. We recognize that in order to succeed as a company which strives for sustainability, everyone across the company must work together under one vision and one goal. In order to do that, we set accountability at the forefront and measure success as to how well we are implementing our sustainability initiatives. (7:17) 
  • Altium’s Favorite Sustainability Initiative Currently: As a consumer, hopefully if you recycle, you put the materials in a bin and it gets shipped off to a sorting facility where it is sorted, and we buy that material. Envision, our fully-owned subsidiary, is a mechanical recycler. We put the used plastic through a process, sort it again, create flakes, clean it thoroughly, and then extrude it into new resin pellets purely made better of recycled material. We are essentially taking this trash and turning it into material that is clean and can be used across a variety of applications including food applications. Our recycled material can make its way back into food packaging which is currently being legislated in states like California and Washington. We also have a product out of Envision called Ocean Bound. Ocean Bound is material that we collect close to the shores of developing areas of the world. We take that material, reclaim it, and put it through that same process, so we’re diverting material that might have ended up in the rivers and in the oceans. It is pretty exciting. The supply chain has a lot of pieces to it, the costs aren’t ideally where we’d like them to be, and it is more expensive to use this recycled material. But it’s pretty exciting that we are able to construct a system to enable our customers to build in this PCR (post-consumer resin), or recycled material into their products. (8:20) 
  • The Value Sustainability Has Brought To The Business: For one thing, customers are now significantly committed to sustainability. There has always been a lot of talk, but only in the last several years have large companies, medium-sized companies, and some small companies said we’re actually going to set goals and try to meet those goals. We’ve heard things like we want 25% of our packaging to be…. we want 100% recyclable and X percent from recycled content. So, these goals have been set and companies are finally taking them seriously and we’re very happy to work with those companies to meet those goals. There is a fair amount of consumer interest and interest from NGOs, not for profits, etc., which have also expressed the desire for a more sustainable circular economy so we’re happy to play a role in bringing that product to market. (11:10) 
  • The One Thing People Should Know About Sustainability In The Packaging Industry: There’s a little bit of an anti-plastic sentiment out there. And we’re very much aware of it and concerned about it. Plastic is a good thing. For one thing, it meets essential needs better than any other material can in certain industries like healthcare delivery. In the food industry, food preparation and preservation and getting foods to areas where they need it. And also with consumer products, we think it is the best material and that is why there is so much of it and why it has grown so quickly. We need to do a much better job recycling and making sure there is enough supply in our recycling stream so we can meet these goals and be an efficient user of this material which we feel is an excellent alternative. Plastic right now is the suitable choice of material as it provides significantly less carbon dioxide emissions. We have the infrastructure to support the recycling stream and recycle materials back into new packaging and products. In order to move the industry forward, there needs to be a higher level of consumer engagement with brands, and Altium, as well, can play a part in educating consumers on how to recycle and the benefits of plastic versus alternatives. (13:00) 

TRANSCRIPTION

Jennifer: Tell me about your roles leading sustainability at Altium. Sarah, would you like to go first?

Sarah: I recently joined Altium as a sustainability associate. Right now, I am working to spearhead Altium’s sustainability initiatives across the company and our portfolio. I am monitoring the external industry, analyzing how Altium can help customers meet their sustainability goals as well as meet increased government regulations such as PCR requirements, which is post-consumer resin, for active, innovative design solutions. 

Brian: I’m working with Sarah and the team that reports up to me. Sustainability is absolutely critical to who we are and what we do. We are a large manufacturer of rigid plastic containers. So, anything that you would buy in a grocery store in a Costco, that kind of thing. It might be your laundry detergent bottle, your oil bottle, shampoo, beverage, etc. But sustainability has always been important to us and so we try to be an efficient steward of those resources. We also own the second largest [2:00] recycling company of HTP, which is one of the types of plastics that you buy these products in. So, we are very much part of that circular chain and work with our customers to become more sustainable and encourage them to use these resources efficiently. 

Jennifer: How do you partner with your customer in helping them achieve their sustainability goals? 

Sarah: A lot of our customers, especially now they have large sustainability goals across our packaging design. So, a lot of our customers have these targets where a certain amount of recycled content has to be in their portfolio by a certain date and Altium can provide that as we have two plants under envision where we recycle plastics and are able to provide that post-consumer resin in our packaging. 

Brian: We also very proactively work with customers and encourage them to light weight. So, you can imagine, lets take the standard gallon package that you might buy a gallon of water in or milk. We’ve been working for years to lightweight that package. We’ve expanded that approach if you will, that light weighting science to other package forms. We have about 10 in the family right now. A canister, something you might buy wipes in. What we’re able to do is take about 15 to 20% of the weight out. So, it’s using that much less plastic, at the same time, maintaining or improving the product performance so it doesn’t fail at the shelf or in the home as the consumers are using these products. So, we’ve been very successful building that [4:00] franchise. We call it the Duralight Franchise and that’s the basic value prop. How can we take weight out, use less plastic at the same time, improve or maintain performance. 

Jennifer: That’s great to hear. Thanks for sharing a couple of those initiatives. When you look at the world of opportunities to look at packaging and help make progress against some of these sustainability efforts, how do you determine what efforts to focus on? It seems like there are a lot of opportunities because the industry is really starting to gain momentum right now. 

Brian: I’ll start and then, Sarah, feel free to contribute. So, some of it is driven by our own initiatives and things we think are important in terms of lightweight packaging. Often times, customers will come to us with the desire to meet their sustainability goals. So, we will help work with them on that. We’re also doing a fair amount of experimentation and development with biomaterials, additives to make our packaging effective using less virgin resin, it’s the virgin plastic. So, a variety of initiatives. We track them all, we try to assess what is that value add to our company, to our customers, and to our society in terms of helping us to focus on what is most important. 

Sarah: Yeah, and I’ll build off of what Brian said. We really focus on three main pillars to drive our value and first one being optimizing design within our packaging. We have a whole team dedicated to product design whether it is light weighting, like Brian was referencing to, our material reduction. And ensure these products are suitable for the recycling streams. Our second one is sourcing sustainability. So, we have 64 manufacturing plants [6:00] and two of them are envision recycling plants that are across North America, and this ensures that we are close to our customers, which also reduces transportation costs, fuel, as well as carbon emissions. And our last pillar that we focus on is we support recycling and ensure that all of our products are recyclable. Right now, Altium has a 97% recyclable portfolio. And every day we are striving to build that number and increase it. Under envision, we process over 100 million pounds of mixed resin to supply to the industry whether it is customers or even Altium’s plants. Our differentiated product portfolio allows Altium to really build on our sustainability goals and initiatives. 

Jennifer: That’s great to hear. Kind of those three main areas where you’re starting to make a lot of progress. You’ve mentioned that you’ve worked with teams across the company as well. Could you share more about how sustainability shows up across Altium? It sounds like you’ve developed a way to be able to embed sustainability across multiple places in the organization. 

Sarah: Yeah, so, I’ll start with that. Altium definitely sees sustainability as an opportunity for organic growth. Whether it is across our product portfolio or even across the entire organization. We recognize that in order to succeed as a company that strives to sustainability, everyone across the company must work together under one vision and one goal. In order to do that, we set accountability at the forefront and measure success as to how well we are implementing our sustainability initiatives. [8:00]

Jennifer: Awesome. And then one thing I’d love to hear more about too, maybe from you Brian, especially since your role is spanning across strategy, innovation, as well as sustainability, what is one of your favorite initiatives that your team is working on right now? 

Brian: I’ll talk a little bit more about envision because when you visit these plants its truly remarkable. As a consumer, hopefully if you recycle, then you put the materials in a bin and it gets shipped off to a sorting facility where it is sorted, we buy that material. So, it’s basically bales of what looks like trash and what sometimes smells like trash, we then put it through a process, and what envision does, which is our fully owned subsidiary, is it’s a mechanical recycler. So, what we do is we put it through a process, we sort it again, we create flakes, clean it thoroughly, and then extrude it into new resin pellets purely made better of recycled material. So, we’re taking this, essentially, trash and turning it into material that is clean, that can be used across a variety of applications including being put back into food applications. So, we have a letter of non-objection from the FDA for a very wide use of reign. So, our recycled material can make its way back into food packaging which is currently being legislated in states like California and Washington. So, it’s pretty amazing to watch. We also have a product out of envision called Ocean Bound. Ocean Bound is material that we collect close to the shores of developing areas of the world. We take that material, reclaim it, and put it through that same process and so we’re preventing material that might have ended up in the rivers and in the oceans. [10:00] So, it’s pretty exciting. It’s a little bit…the supply chain there is a lot of pieces to that, the costs aren’t ideally where we’d like them to be, it is more expensive to use this recycled material. But it’s pretty exciting that we’re able to build a system to enable our customers to build in this PCR, post-consumer resin, or recycled material into their products. 

Jennifer: That is exciting. Is some of that material out already used in consumer products or is this something that is just about to hit markets? 

Brian: No, we’ve been doing this for a long time. We’ve owned Envision for seven years and they were around for five or ten years before that. So, we’re very much in the marketplace with a variety of products.

Jennifer: That’s exciting. Well, one question that I have for you as well in relation to the theme of the series, you’ve clearly invested a lot in sustainability, so it has some value to the business. Could you share more about what value it brings to your business? So that others, as they are evaluating sustainability can really recognize why they would make an investment like you have today. 

Brian: Sources of value. For one thing, customers are now, I would say, significantly committed to sustainability. So there has always been a lot of talk but only in the last several years have large companies, medium size companies, and some small companies said we’re actually going to set goals and try to meet those goals. So, you’ve heard things like we want 25% of our packaging to be…. we want 100% recyclable and X percent from recycled content. So, these goals have been set and companies are finally taking them seriously and we’re very happy to work with those companies to meet those goals. There is a fair amount of consumer interest and interest [12:00] from NGOs, not for profits, that also have expressed the desire for a more sustainable circular economy so we’re happy to play a role in that and bring that product to market. And then, you know, another change recently is the legislation that has been passed and Sarah has become our expert on that. But, you know, legislation passed in California that will require recycled content in beverage containers and passed in Washington that’s even broader in terms of the product portfolio that will include recycled material. And then the legislation is pending in other states as well. So, we’re happy to enable that circularity if you will. 

Jennifer: What do you think is one thing that someone should know about sustainability in the packaging industry that they don’t know today? 

Brian: There’s a little bit of an anti-plastic sentiment out there. And we’re very much aware of it and concerned about it. Plastic is a good thing. For one thing, it meets essential needs better than any other material can in certain industries like healthcare delivery. Think about how you get…there’s medical supplies and pharmaceuticals. In the food industry, food preparation and preservation and getting foods to areas that they need it. And also, consumer products, we think it is the best material that’s why there is so much of it and why its grown so quickly. But we need to do a much better job recycling and making sure that there is enough supply in our recycling stream so that we can meet these goals and be an efficient user of this material that we feel [14:00] is an excellent alternative. 

Sarah: I completely agree with Brian. I believe that plastics right now are the suitable choice of material as it provides significantly less carbon dioxide emissions. We have the infrastructure to support the recycling stream and recycle materials back into new packaging and products. Also, I believe that in order to move the industry forward, there needs to be a higher level of consumer engagement and brands, and Altium as well can play a part in educating consumers on how to recycle and the benefits of plastic versus alternatives. 

Jennifer Wong
Jennifer is the Head of Sustainability at Convoy, helping transportation leaders make progress against their environmental and social impact goals.