Amazon, Nestle Waters and other sustainability leaders zero in on supply chain impacts

It’s not every day you get to hear packaging executives at Amazon talk about sustainability in packaging for ecommerce. And that is just one headliner of many scheduled for the SustPack 2017 conference (Apr. 24-26; Scottsdale, AZ). Attendees will also gain insights from sustainability chiefs from Nestlé Waters North America, Nike, Coca-Cola, Target and more.

With a decade of success in its past, SustPack is co-produced by Smithers Pira and the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, in partnership with Packaging Digest. This year it focuses on the Inputs, Outputs and Impacts of Packaging in Supply Chain Sustainability with sessions on ecommerce, sustainable sourcing, alternative technologies, recycling programs and food waste reduction.

Review the agenda and book now. The Early Bird rate—offering $350 savings—expires Fri., Feb. 24.

Need a bit more enticement? Ciaran Little, director of operations—Americas, Smithers, gives us a preview of some of the hot topics on the program at this leading sustainable packaging event.

Ciaran Little


This is the 10th year of the conference. Is there anything special planned for this milestone anniversary?

Little: This year will be the biggest and best attended edition of the event in its history—and that’s pretty special. We have a range of exciting presentations, site visits, tours, workshops, awards, social events, volunteer activities and more packed into the three days this April.


What does it say about the topic of sustainable packaging that the conference has succeeded for a full decade?

Little: When Smithers Pira and Packaging Digest launched the inaugural Sustainability in Packaging conference in 2007, the focus was on trying to understand what it meant to be sustainable and the defining characteristics were determined by a small number of retailers. Now every company in the packaging value chain recognizes not just the importance of sustainability to their future business but also the complexity of it. Everyone who has worked on a sustainability project will relate that the deeper you get into it, the more there is to consider.

The conference over its history has continued to evolve to meet the changing needs of the industry as the packaging value chain makes progress on these issues. The event is a great way to chart progress along the way but also to recognize and acknowledge the challenges we still have to face and the importance of collaboration in addressing them.


The program for this year’s event focuses on sustainability in packaging for the supply chain, with material sourcing, ecommerce and food waste among the key topics. How can new knowledge in these areas help nearly any packaging professional, whether they are tasked with sustainability goals or not?

Little: Making packaging more sustainable is a multi-faceted and multi stakeholder challenge. Many companies bring people from procurement, logistics, R&D and marketing—as well as packaging teams and sustainability teams—because they recognize that many different people across the organization have a critical role to play in developing a new pack or a new product that will be more sustainable.


I didn’t see anything specific to the Circular Economy on the agenda. Has interest in the Circular Economy peaked? Why or why not?

Little: I don’t think we will get through the entire SustPack agenda this year without Circular Economy being discussed. Our overarching theme this year is Inputs, Outputs and Impacts. The premise of the circular economy is closely aligned with these principles. We will be looking at the materials coming into the packaging value chain, the options for post-consumer packaging waste and the impact these choices have and—in this sense—our program is consistent thematically with circular economy principles so we didn’t feel it was necessary (or perhaps even possible) to address it as a singular topic.


What are some of the top challenges of packaging for ecommerce as it relates to sustainability and how will these challenges be discussed at the event?

Little: We are delighted to have two speakers from Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, presenting at SustPack this year: Dr. Kim Houchens, director of worldwide packaging (CPEX), Sustainability, and Brent Nelson, senior manager of worldwide packaging (CPEX), Sustainability. Ecommerce is clearly a game changer for the packaging industry and everything from branding and consumer perception to the value chain and transit requirements are different from the packaging designed for the traditional retail world. We are looking forward to an in-depth view from the industry leader on how to design sustainability into your ecommerce packaging.


Several workshops are short this year (1 hour), but also seem to be more narrow as far as the topic is concerned. Why that format this year?

Little: We do a lot of research to get feedback from our attendees. We had a lot of great proposed topics to choose from and so we decided to run a larger number of shorter workshops to give people quick access to a range of topics rather than a deep dive into a couple.


The SPC Innovator Awards celebrates people, products, partnerships and processes. Why is it important for the industry to recognize innovation in these four areas?

Little: All four of those areas are necessary to the success of sustainable packaging and while they are all obviously inter-related we thought it would be important to recognize each individually. Often awards focus on products and we felt it was also important to recognize the people and the partnerships that play a crucial role in creating the products and the processes that make them successful.


Anything else notable about the agenda that you’d like to point out?

Little: This year’s agenda has the greatest breadth and depth we have been able to achieve so far on the topic. We have some senior perspectives giving leadership direction, such as Diego Donoso, business president, Packaging and Specialty Plastics of The Dow Chemical Co., and Nelson Switzer, chief sustainability officer at Nestle Waters.

We’ve also worked with our program consulting experts to see that stakeholders from retail to raw materials to recycling facilities are represented. Having engagement and perspective from everyone involved will give us not just a fascinating agenda but a real chance of driving real progress in sustainable packaging.


Sustainable packaging leaders on the agenda at SustPack 2017 include:

Top (left to right): Nelson Switzer, chief sustainability officer, Nestlé Waters North America; Brent Nelson, senior manager of worldwide packaging sustainability, Amazon; and Kim Houchens, director of worldwide packaging sustainability, Amazon.

Bottom (l to r): Sarah Dearman, sustainable packaging, The Coca-Cola Co.; Liza Blackwell, packaging sustainability manager, Nike Inc.; and Kim Carswell, group manager, owned brands packaging, Target.



Learn what it takes to innovate in the packaging space at the new Advanced Design & Manufacturing Cleveland event (Mar. 29-30; Cleveland, OH). Register today!


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Cal Poly unlocks the Packaging Value Chain

Big thinking at Cal Poly: The bold new all-encompassing Center for Packaging Value Chain initiative helps define the college’s packaging program going forward.


The Center for Packaging Value Chain could be viewed as a kind of packaging counterpart to scientists’ ongoing quest for a Grand Unified Theory in physics. Only in this case, the Center for PVC is a reality.

This inclusive, all-in-one packaging curriculum was formalized and recently launched on the campus of Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, CA. Bundling numerous topics across the packaging spectrum from sustainability to design and a whole lot more into a cohesive whole, the Center for PVC has been championed by packaging program director Jay Singh, PhD.

“For example, everyone wants to use sustainable designs and sustainable packaging to increase their profit margins,” he says. “If, for example, we had established a sustainability center, that would be limiting. However, sustainability serves a key role within the all-encompassing Packaging Value Chain.”

What does the Packaging Value Chain mean to Singh?  In his words, it’s of paramount importance.

“We want the Cal Poly Packaging Program not to be known as just packaging science, packaging technology or packaging engineering, but known for the Packaging Value Chain,” Singh explains. “The Center for PVC is the core theme with regards to the academic and research side of our program. According to Singh, it allows Cal Poly to enhance the research focus on two levels:

  • It broadens the scope of packaging for our students and
  • It does not limit what they can be doing.
  • “The Center for PVC is our angle on packaging on a bigger platform that leverages and engages Cal Poly’s expertise and resources into packaging,” he explains. “The vision for the Center is to create a nationally recognized education research center in the realm of interdisciplinary packaging related themes.

    “Everything we are doing, especially the Center for PVC, focuses on the packaging value chain.”

    The initiative reached a tipping point when the Center gained formal approval from the university in December, which technically marked its launch, according to Singh.

    “We are in the process of interviewing for the new position of Administrative Director for the Center for PVC,” he says. “We hope to have a candidate in place before summer. The AD will work with us to strategize and set goals towards a physical space. We plan to continue enhancing our current labs until such time that we have an independent space for the Center.”


    Draws expertise from architecture to landfill management

    How holistic and inclusive is the program? As an example, Singh submitted several months ago a list of about 30 faculty members as prospective collaborators from among all six of Cal Poly’s on-campus colleges. These include, for example, the College of Architecture.

    “The college has design experts that we could use for some unique projects,” Singh points out.

    On-campus, intercollege cooperation has firmed up over years.

    “We’ve already worked with four other colleges on campus for grants or projects, so we have established good will and relationships,” reports Singh. “For example, we have a global research institute on-campus that I’ve been onboard with since inception that has expertise in landfill and end-of-life treatment, which has a sustainability component. They may not know precisely what packaging is about and what the packaging business is like, but they deal with it indirectly or directly through landfills.”

    Something for packaging professionals, too

    Singh expects to launch a one-year Master’s Degree for the Packaging Value Chain for full-time students in fall 2018. The course will offer 8 core classes developed from scratch including three unique courses, Packaging Value Logistics and Supply Chain Management; Packaging Design; and Marketing & Sales for Packaged Product. Cal Poly is also offering five certificates among the 14 total courses in this program including one to be available fall 2017.

    Notably, the online-only PVC Master’s program has as its primary target packaging professionals.

    “Depending on their commitment and availability, the online students can earn the MS in one to three years,” says Singh.

    Although the college has offered “hybrid courses” with combination of online and real-world involvement, all labs have been eliminated from the PVC course. “A year or two after launch we will consider a hybrid version with a lab component,” he adds.


    Program update and modifications

    The current Cal Poly packaging program has a total enrollment of about 400 students in three modes including 90-100 students as a Major with a Concentration in Consumer Packaging Solutions, Singh reports. That track is primarily for business administration students with a focus between both marketing and packaging.

    “We have about 230 packaging majors enrolled in our program,” Singh notes. “We continue the packaging minor that I inherited that has about 100 students, the same as in 2003.

    We’re trying to build a healthy program without expanding too rapidly, all built on the solid foundation I inherited. A new faculty member will start at Cal Poly this fall quarter, bringing our instructor strength to five tenured/tenure track and one lecturer. All the support we’re getting allows us to create these new silos on top of that with expertise.”

    The Center for PVC adds another dimension to the distinction Cal Poly’s Packaging Program already has among packaging schools.

    “Ours is the only packaging program that I’m aware of that operates within a business school (the Orfalea College of Business),” Singh points out. “The college, as a whole, has identified packaging as one of the two key areas of global distinction for the entire college and with that recognition comes a lot of internal support.”

    Even with plans through the Center for PVC to redirect certain efforts, Singh doesn’t want to detract from the path the packaging program has been on since before his arrival in mid-2003 in taking over from long-time program director Larry Gay.

    “We plan to expand the packaging program beyond science and technology without diluting that component,” Singh states. “In fact, we are enhancing that part of the program with five new undergraduate courses that we’re launching in the next catalog for fall 2017.”

    It was a campus visit in that same summer ‘03 where I first met Singh. His passion for packaging, for the school and for the students is as apparent now as it was then. Having observed from afar the program’s progress over the years that Singh has helped to initiate and orchestrate, it’s clear he hasn’t skipped a beat.


    For more information contact:

    Dr. Jay Singh

    Professor & Packaging Program Director

    Orfalea College of Business, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, CA 93407

    Phone 805-756-2129, Fax 805-756-6111, email:

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    Marking plastics directly for UDI and more

    To help medical device manufacturers meet Unique Device Identification (UDI) rules as well as satisfy other marking needs, RTP Company has introduced laser-markable thermoplastic compounds. The materials can be used for packaging as well as for the devices themselves.

    “The UDI system is intended to ensure that patients get the exact medical device ordered by their doctor and to allow the FDA to trace where the device was manufactured and when,” explains Josh Blackmore, Global Healthcare Manager at RTP Company. “As the UDI system expands into Class I devices, more companies will look to laser marking for adding serial numbers to devices. It is not practical to serialize using pad printing,” he said, speaking of a common technique for marking plastics directly.

    RTP Company compounds a variety of base resins such as polypropylene, nylon, polycarbonate, and others with an additive that absorbs the energy of a laser to form a dark, permanent mark, explains Blackmore. “We’re also working on additives that can produce a high contrast mark on clear olefin films for use in packaging,” he adds.

    The durable marks are resistant to wear and abrasion and eliminate the need for inks, clean-up, or other consumables. Plastic compounds that can be used with laser marking technology can be clear, black, white, or custom colored. Laser marks that appear white or black are stable without the need for a secondary process. 

    RTP Company can also provide masterbatches with the laser-marking additive to packaging manufacturers for use in their own film-making processes.

    In addition to enabling direct bar coding and other product identification marking, laser-markable compounds could be used to directly mark drug-delivery devices with dials or instructions.

    For more details, visit or visit RTP Company at Booth #2003 at MD&M East in New York City June 13-15. 



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    The sustainability of ecommerce packaging is in question

    Does ecommerce generate more packaging waste than traditional retail distribution? With ecommerce sales growing in the U.S. at 14.6% in 2015, according to Internet Retailer, it’s time for some answers. A new whitepaper by environmental and policy packaging group Ameripen brings clarity to the murky topic of sustainability for ecommerce packaging and identifies five opportunities for improvements.

    Published in January 2017, Ameripen’s free 15-page whitepaper “Optimizing Packaging for an E-commerce World” succinctly outlines the unique sustainability challenges for packaging in the ecommerce channel. The conclusion? “[O]ptimizing packaging for ecommerce may very well look different than design for traditional retail, due to the different demands of the respective distribution chains.

    “Opportunities to invest in further development of the packaging supply chain for e-commerce and subsequently omni-commerce scan the breadth of distribution channel and solutions will come only through industry collaboration and transparency.”

    Authors Bob Lilienfeld, Ameripen senior communications director, and Kyla Fisher, founder, Three Peaks Sustainability, explain why this topic deserves attention now and how packaging designers will adapt.

    Bob Lilienfeld

    Kyla Fisher


    Do brand owners need to worry about ecommerce packaging or is this the job of the fulfillment house?

    Lilienfeld: Both. Consumers don’t necessarily differentiate between the retailer or the brand. We know consumers believe that packaging is reflective of company’s sustainability commitment, so brands and retailers both need to ensure their packaging demonstrates this commitment.


    What surprised you the most as you were researching ecommerce packaging to write this whitepaper and why?

    Lilienfeld: I was most surprised by the lack of big picture thinking—the inability to see product protection and damage control as a major sustainability benefit of packaging. There’s some available data related to product damage, but other than a few academics, the industry is not fully discussing the fact that you must look at the economic, environmental and social impact of both the product and the packaging, including the primary, cushioning and transport components.

    Fisher: There’s also widespread belief and acceptance that ecommerce is driving increased packaging. A common refrain we hear is that ecommerce packaging is excessive (and there are certainly examples of that) but when we look across the value chain and how the three systems of packaging (primary, secondary and tertiary) are shifting, it left us wondering if we are cumulatively using more material or if the disposal of packaging has simply shifted from retailers to consumers. This needs more study as it could have a significant impact on future packaging and waste policy and strategies.


    After all your research, would you say that direct-to-consumer distribution is more wasteful from an environmental perspective—using more materials and energy, and generating more waste—than typical retail distribution? Why or why not?

    Lilienfeld: We found conflicting studies that pointed in either direction—depending on who did the research, where they stood in the value chain and/or distribution channel, what products were evaluated and what consumer behaviors were measured. There are simply too many variables to create an all-encompassing life-cycle analysis (LCA). And frankly, when the differences by product, application, distance, weight and cost are factored in, the answer is going to be “It depends.”


    The whitepaper points out major differences between ecommerce and traditional retail sales: Ecommerce purchases delivered directly to consumers…
    • require more “touchpoints”
    • pose a higher risk of damage
    • tend to result in significantly higher return rates
    One solution might be more durable packages. Does this necessarily mean using more material and, thus, being less sustainable?

    Lilienfeld: Again, we can’t look at the concept of sustainability in a vacuum. We must look at the entire system of product containment, protection, storage, delivery and end-of-life. For example, a package made of 100% recycled, compostable paper and biopolymers may appear to be sustainable, but if a more traditional packaging configuration means that my 70-inch, $2,000 4K TV shows up in my house in perfect condition, the second is more sustainable from a big picture perspective—which is the one that drives potential environmental impacts.


    Table 1 charts six differences between traditional retail, ecommerce and omni-channel logistics. How difficult was this table to put together?

    Fisher: It was surprising to us that there aren’t more comparisons publicly available. The data was easy to access and only touches on broad aspects. It would be interesting to develop it further to analyze aspects like damage rates and cumulative material demand in each channel. It’s imperative that we begin to understand if total volume is increasing, or simply shifting between the retailer and consumer.



    Ecommerce return rates are between 20% and 30%, which is more than double the 9% traditional retail return rate. That’s one reason ecommerce packaging carries such a heavy burden for product protection—it often is also used for reverse logistics. Additionally, there is more opportunity for product damage for direct-to-consumer shipments because of the high number of touchpoints. What should packaging professionals keep top of mind when designing and testing protective packaging for ecommerce distribution and why?

    Fisher: After exploring the difference in the distribution channels, the paper explores consumer expectations as they relate to ecommerce. This is key to where designers should focus.

    When you break down the return rate, there are certain products with higher return rates. Designers of those should consider the designing for return. But an interesting challenge with returnable packaging is excessive material. If 70% to 80% of product is not being returned and yet we are including a returnable label and possibly a new package for returns, then are we cumulatively creating more waste? There are ways around this, such as using printable labels or reusable packaging which serves for receipt and return—but designers will need to balance this with consumer ease.

    Another area to explore further in design is the opportunity to design packaging specific to ecommerce where the primary package could be developed uniquely for shipping thereby eliminating secondary and tertiary packaging. This is an emerging market—Amazon is encouraging it somewhat with its frustration-free packaging but it’s not a mainstream practice.

    And this approach isn’t without its challenges, including:

    • costs of developing different stock-keeping units (SKUs) for each channel;

    • how to address SKU’s for omni-commerce sales where the storefront could serve as either a warehouse from which material is shipped direct to the consumer or as a pickup location; and

    • establishing alignment with consumer expectation: Consumers are accustomed to receiving the same package they would see online or choose from a storefront.

    Also, while this is not directly related to returnable packaging, one area to consider is the emergence of dim weight pricing now used by most carriers. Dim weight factors both size and weight into shipping costs. Therefore, there is a trend toward lighter weight and decreased shipping volumes.

    Partially in response to this, as well as consumer interest in recyclable and renewable materials, we’re seeing the emergence of new materials such as molded pulp, jute and films. As these materials enter the mainstream, anticipating and responding to them will be key to recovery. This is something both designers and recyclers will need to collaborate on.


    How can there be best practices in ecommerce packaging when the products—and the variety of multiple products—in a single shipment can be so different?

    Fisher: Multiple products in a shipment are referred to as “the basket.” Some suppliers use this approach to ensure that they minimize shipping costs by incentivizing the purchase of multiple items—similar to “upselling.” Yet as it relates to addressing “basket” orders, a challenge that needs to be explored is how to work with the “hub-and-spoke” model. If I order a basket of three goods, but they’re stored in three different fulfillment centers, the ability to collectively ship is not available. This frustrates consumers who don’t see that logistical challenge. Evaluating better how companies that develop basket incentives are addressing this might uncover some best practices for further exploration.

    In terms of ecommerce packaging at large, the bigger challenge right now is obtaining access to data on damage rates by material and/or format. Most of this is currently proprietary. Opening up data through industry associations and third parties would help better inform as well as educate the general consumer on why ecommerce packaging may shift from what they have traditionally found in a storefront.


    The whitepaper touches on new safety concerns that will need to be addressed, such as delivery people handling heavy items and ensuring the safe distribution of fresh foods. Who will be or should be setting safety standards for ecommerce packaging?

    Fisher: The International Safe Transit Assoc. (ISTA) appears to be leading these efforts. Historically, distribution safety has been its domain, but ecommerce is a unique animal and we believe collaboration across associations will be needed.

    There are also other organizations engaged in these dialogues. The Sustainable Packaging Coalition has a cold chain value committee that is looking at packaging for the safe distribution of fresh food. The Grocery Manufacturers Assn. has also commissioned studies in this area.



    Learn what it takes to innovate in the packaging space at the new Advanced Design & Manufacturing Cleveland event (Mar. 29-30; Cleveland, OH). Register today!

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