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The Collaborative Journey Toward a More Circular Economy: Key Takeaways from Climate Week

By Pat Lindner, President of Consumer Packaging and Chief Innovation Officer, WestRock

WestRock hosted a live, virtual event to mark Climate Week 2020, moderated by GreenBiz Group, joined by The Coca-Cola Company, The Procter & Gamble Company (P&G) and the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC): Fitting a Square Inside The Circle: Sustainable Packaging Solutions Driving a More Circular Economy. Here, WestRock President of Consumer Packaging and Chief Innovation Officer, Pat Lindner, shares his thoughts and some key takeaways from the discussion. If you’d like to catch up on the full conversation with Nina Goodrich, GreenBlue executive director, SPC director; Brent Heist, director R&D Packaging Sustainability, P&G; Ben R. Jordan Ph. D., sr. director Environmental Policy, The Coca-Cola Company; and moderated by Lauren Phipps, director and senior analyst on circular economy, GreenBiz Group, you can hear an audio recording below.

In the midst of a global pandemic, raging West coast wildfires, and a hurricane season so active that we've run out of proper names and started using letters in the Greek alphabet as designations, there can be no doubt that climate change is having a devastating effect on our planet.

As chaotic as this moment is, it has drawn a clear line for consumers between the products they purchase, the packaging they come in and the need for greater packaging sustainability. More people are working from home, ordering takeout and having products shipped to them at home in lieu of going to stores. At WestRock, all of this means a continued, and even heightened, focus on connecting people to products safely and sustainably.

On September 23, during Climate Week, I had the opportunity to come together with industry and NGO leaders to explore trends and innovations in sustainable packaging, discuss real-world examples of sustainable custom packaging solutions from some of the world’s leading businesses, and contemplate best practices for facilitating the transition to a circular economy. The conversation inspired me. Here are three key takeaways that I hope will inspire you, too.

1. The COVID-19 global crisis has compounded an environmental crisis. In this “new normal,” as we’re consuming more – and generating more waste – the need for a more sustainable world is now.

As we’ve seen at WestRock, our customers and our partners continue to come forward with really important sustainability issues. P&G’s Brent Heist is seeing this, too. As he noted, the pandemic has consumers paying attention in a different way, and he’s hopeful that this new focus and new awareness will enable us to engage them even more in the sustainability conversation, while allowing us to bring more sustainable products to the market place. Many of us wondered early on if we would see a fallback in overall interest in sustainability during COVID-19; we’ve actually seen an acceleration, which is exciting. For us at WestRock, we just completed a consumer survey to understand how packaging preferences have been impacted post-COVID. Responses confirmed sustainable packaging is more important today than it was before the pandemic and more impactful on product satisfaction. We’re looking forward to the tough tasks ahead. People are bringing sustainability challenges to us that they think are insurmountable. Nothing is impossible if you dare to imagine a more sustainable solution, and that is just what we’re doing.

2. Collaboration – particularly cross-sector collaboration – is pivotal in advancing toward a more circular economy.

Collaboration is not only key, it’s crucial. As GreenBlue’s Nina Goodrich so eloquently reflected, one of the benefits of having companies at the table together is that the people collecting and recycling the packages are able to advise the people that are designing the packages of what’s possible and what’s not. She went on to point out that there are myths in the industry about what you can and cannot do, what you can and cannot recycle, and it’s important to start busting those myths, to say, no we can do this, we can take this type of material. WestRock recently conducted a multi-phase grease study—reviewed by third parties and in partnership with Domino’s-- to determine what we suspected. Grease and residual cheese do not affect the ability of the corrugated box to be recycled, or our ability to create new packaging from that recycled material. The way Nina sees it, this is how we’ll inform design for the future, and I couldn’t agree more. She’s absolutely right when she says that the conversation that’s starting to happen is beneficial in terms of making more packaging solutions that are recyclable. But she also highlighted collection. As she aptly pointed out, we can't reprocess it if we can't collect it. So, we need to invest in collection.

3. There’s no silver bullet when it comes to sustainable packaging. We must provide a variety of solutions so that companies and customers have multiple opportunities to make more sustainable choices.

Both Coca-Cola’s Ben Jordan and P&G’s Brent Heist agree that when it comes to striving for greater sustainability, small wins help pave the way. Ben talked about Coca-Cola’s methodology behind their sustainable packaging process. As he told the panel, the company starts from a place of, “how can we improve this?” This might mean taking material out, using more recyclable material, or moving to more of a bio-phased material. Whatever it is, as Ben points out, it’s rarely a single thing, but rather a combination of things that all work toward the goal of making the packaging more sustainable than it was the day before.P&G’s Brent Heist shared this sentiment and pointed out that when you’re looking at packaging design, first and foremost, you are looking at how it’s protecting the package and the consumer. Science guides the way as you consider what is better, sustainability-wise. There’s never a single answer in a lifecycle assessment. Brent cautioned against looking for that “holy grail” solution, encouraging people instead to do what we can do now, with what’s available, where the industry is today, and where consumers are today. Of course, he emphasized, these day-by-day improvements work in tandem with the longer-term goals.

Innovation at its best is bold, but it is also incremental. It is essential that we encourage change and applaud progress—however small, acknowledging that sustainability is a collaborative journey. It is critical that we continue having these conversations, and prioritize innovating new solutions, improving recyclability, improving collection and increasing awareness (from sourcing to recycling). By working together, we have the power to motivate a broader movement toward a more circular economy. This virtual panel was a testament to that, and we’re thrilled to have brought together industry leaders and partners who share our vision for a more sustainable future.

If you have the time, I strongly encourage you to watch the recording. And if you have any insights to share, I—for one—would welcome the opportunity to hear them.