PPC Opens Spring Meeting Highlighting Sustainability Opportunities
Though the ongoing pandemic may have curtailed the Paperboard Packaging Council’s (PPC) plans to host its annual Spring Outlook & Strategies Conference as a live event in Denver, the folding carton and rigid box industry convened virtually last week, in a three-day event that placed paperboard packaging in the spotlight.
“Like the Red Rocks Amphitheater in Denver, we hope this Spring Meeting is your stage,” Ben Markens, president of the PPC, said in opening the event.
To kick off the meeting, Brian Hunt, COO of Southern Champion Tray, and chairman of the PPC’s board of directors, outlined how the association was able to have a successful 2020, despite the challenges the year presented. First, he shared that the PPC hosted 30 events, an impressive feat considering the necessary shift to a virtual format.
Additionally, he said that the multiple town hall sessions the association hosted were instrumental in providing members with the information they needed to navigate the unprecedented business conditions and health concerns created by COVID-19.
“It was the go-to industry resource for COVID and helped us declare as an essential service,” Hunt said.
In addition to commending the PPC’s successes despite the pandemic year, Hunt revealed that the association would be bestowing its most prestigious honor — the Robert T. Gair award — to a member for the first time since 2016. The award, named for the man credited with laying the foundation of folding carton packaging in 1879, honors PPC members who have provided a lifetime of support to the industry.
The 2021 award was presented to Steve Voorhees, the recently retired president and CEO of WestRock, who was honored for his contributions to the growth of the company and its corporate culture. Additionally Hunt commended Voorhees’s role in the WestRock Foundation, which focuses on both environmental initiatives, and educating young students about futures in manufacturing.
The sustainability theme continued following Hunt’s opening statements, with a keynote presentation from David Feber and Daniel Nordigaarden of McKinsey & Co. The presentation, titled “Emerging Themes and Opportunities in Sustainability,” focused on the importance brand owners, retailers, and consumers are placing on sustainability, and how paperboard packaging printers and converters can maximize the sustainability advantages of the products they produce.
Feber explained that throughout the pandemic, the intense focus on sustainability in packaging took a temporary backseat, as other trends such as hygiene, e-commerce, and a strained supply chain, became increasingly important. In fact, he said that some of the single-use plastic bans that had been in place were lifted. But now that there is a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, Feber said the push toward sustainability has returned. Where questions remain however, is in what elements of sustainability will be most important to consumers.
“The sustainability momentum can be a big tailwind or a headwind depending on how you react around it,” Feber said.
Nordigaarden shared that there are two challenges emerging as top-of-mind issues when it comes to sustainable packaging. First, he said that much of the packaging being produced is not easily recyclable, with some materials not easily accepted into recycling streams, and other materials that feature a coating or lamination that adds to the difficulty of recycling.
The other key challenge is in leakage of packaging during its end of life phase. This is of particular concern in plastic packaging, with approximately 16% of all plastics (not just packaging) collected for recycling, and 12% actually getting mechanically recycled. Meanwhile, for plastic that does leak out into the environment, it can take centuries to fully degrade.
This is an opportunity for paperboard-based packaging, Nordigaarden explained, sharing that through a McKinsey research initiative, results indicated that consumers are willing to pay more for products that come in packaging they perceive to be sustainable. And when asked which packaging materials they believe to be more sustainable, consumers in the U.S. ranked paper-based cartons No. 1.
With this in mind, Feber said that it will be advantageous for paperboard packaging producers to consider where paperboard can serve as a replacement for substrates consumers view as less sustainable. This innovation is a potential avenue for company growth, he said, and could position a company as an environmental leader.
“This could be a tailwind as we shift out of rigid plastic into new solutions,” he said. “This is an area to think about.”