Episode 104: A Closer Look Inside Flexible Packaging (Transcript)

April 19, 2021

27 Min Read

[00:00:00] Liz Bothwell: Hi everyone, welcome to Waste360's NothingWasted! Podcast. On every episode, we invite the most interesting people in waste recycling and organics to sit down with us and chat candidly about their thoughts, their work, this unique industry and so much more. Thanks for listening and enjoy this episode.


[00:00:26] Liz: Hi everyone. This is Liz Bothwell from Waste360 with Jonathan Quinn, e-Commerce Packaging Market Manager with NOVA Chemicals. Hi, Jonathan, and thanks for being on the show today.

[00:00:38] Jonathan Quinn: Hi, Liz. It's great to be here. Thank you so much for having me.

[00:00:43] Liz: I have to let everyone know that Jonathan and I met on Clubhouse and we knew that we needed to talk more. For those of you who aren't familiar, Clubhouse is a fairly new audio social network that many people are buzzing about today. It's wonderful that we get to speak live today, Jonathan. I'm so psyched.

[00:01:04] Jonathan: Yes. I'm so, so very excited to be here with you and to talk with you about everything related to the sustainable and flexible packaging conversation. But also it's so exciting to see the connections from Clubhouse that take place now off of the platform. Really shows the power and the benefit of the platform and really, I think, what you and I have both seen over the course of the past three months.

[00:01:40] Liz: Absolutely. We'll just dive right in. Please, set the stage for me. I want to hear about your background. I love your passion, but I need to know how you ended up in packaging.

[00:01:52] Jonathan: Yes. It's probably not the ordinary story, but I grew up around the flexible packaging industry. My dad was a president and CEO of a couple of packaging companies growing up. I have pictures of me in a box of resin when I was two, I was in the lab doing elongation testing when I was five because that was the cool thing to do, or at least I thought.

Growing up around the industry and really looking up to my dad, I had the goal and I wanted to, one day, work in a corner office next to my dad. That was the long-range plan. But growing up by really became excited and passionate about packaging. Going to the grocery store was never a normal experience with me and my dad, because I was always learning and he was always teaching. No trip to the grocery store was a short one.

My dream since I was in seventh grade was to go to Clemson and study packaging, so that's what I did. I went to Clemson, majored in Packaging and Business, to really be able to be on the commercial side and development side of the packaging industry, focused predominantly in the flexible packaging area. My career, initially, I graduated in December of 2008 when it all had, at that time, hit the proverbial fan.

There wasn't a ton of opportunities but I was able to get a sales manager role with an analytical company that focused on package film testing. Then my career evolved into a number of different packaging companies, mainly in sales roles and sales leadership roles. In all those roles, I was mainly working with major brands and CPGs on the food and food packaging side of the conversation. Then I found my way to NOVA where I've been for, about five years.

Just under five years and have been on the marketing side of the conversation, so in market development roles. First for food packaging, and then a market development role for the entire polyethylene business. Now I'm in a market management role, responsible for our e-commerce and shrink film market segments.

[00:04:46] Liz: I love that story because you really made it happen from age two onward. You have to share those photos, too, with us.

[00:04:55] Jonathan: I will, I will. There's one that sits on my desk. I call it my desk, but it's my dining room, which has become my office. It's of me and my dad. In this one, I'm standing next to a huge roll of film. It's what I look at every day because it's what drives me. My dad had a stroke and has been disabled since I was a senior in high school. I'll never get the opportunity to work with my dad but it's one of the things that drives me.

Is incredibly important to me to make sure that I carry on the legacy that my dad started. Really, it started with my grandfather. My grandfather was actually a press operator in a packaging plant. Of course my dad-- And now I have a younger brother who is also in the industry who went to Clemson for packaging as well. It's deep-rooted in our blood for sure.

[00:05:58] Liz: Amazing. I love that. I know e-commerce packaging is a big part of your job now. Tell me, has it exploded during COVID?

[00:06:08] Jonathan: Yes. Everybody that's listening to the podcast, I'm sure we can all agree that we've seen our e-commerce shipments, our e-commerce deliveries go through the roof. There's been tremendous growth within e-commerce just on a global basis but if you look focused on a North American basis, traditional e-commerce now accounts for 21% of the total North American retail.

Where, headed into 2020, it was around 10% or 11%, actually, so virtually doubling over the course of the past fall at 2020 and early this year. That's a tremendous growth. We've seen, in the previous years, how consistent the growth was to see it, in essence, accelerate the growth to the three to five years ahead of where it was. It's exciting to see. It's exciting to be a part of.

I'm excited to see how things begin to transform, and really how e-commerce packaging goes to the next level in regards to enabling the sustainability conversation because that is the opportunity. Because it's grown and it's blown up so quickly, now we really need to focus and make sure that we're optimizing the packaging and the packaging experience to reduce the environmental impact.

There's no doubt that the e-commerce packaging or e-commerce experience that we're seeing today is going to continue to evolve. I think the real thing, and this is where it all resonates with people, is when you understand what really created that significant increase. It's really about the traditional consumer in that 55 and older demographic was not a religious buyer of e-commerce or subscriber to Amazon, Walmart, or whatever.

That is a demographic that was probably most impacted due to the onset of the pandemic. Now that they've seen the benefits and the convenience that e-commerce provides, they built a trust and confidence in those products that they're buying, that they don't need to buy them and select them themselves, they can trust somebody else. Now those subscribers are going to stay, and that's one of the really impactful aspects of the e-commerce growth conversation.

[00:08:56] Liz: Absolutely. It just forced us to go in that direction. Jonathan, I saw that you recently shared a white paper about how some consumer preferences have changed during the pandemic. Could you please tell me more about that? Is that some of what you were just sharing?

[00:09:14] Jonathan: Yes. That is exactly that. That is some of the research that we've done, looking at consumer perceptions. What is really cool and something that we're really excited about is we started this consumer research looking at consumer perceptions, actually, three years ago. We're about to conduct another survey as well. But we looked at consumer perceptions across the US and Canada, as it pertains to plastic and plastic packaging.

Whether they are seeing the benefits of plastic, and also what some of their desires are in regards to incorporation of recycled materials and things of that nature. I would say there's been a significant shift and maybe just a quick step back. The excitement, as far as us doing the survey, looking at consumers for over three years, really, what that has enabled us is to showcase what the consumer perceptions were pre-COVID, and then what the onset of the pandemic did and how that impacted consumer perceptions.

One of the key things is younger demographics. We're a demographic that we would classify to be all at the movable middle in that they were swaying on whether they saw the benefits or whether they felt that there was risks associated with plastic. But if you educated them on the value of plastic, they would easily or quickly sway towards the positive because when you are able to discuss those positive things associated with plastic, it becomes very clear.

Also, what we saw due to the pandemic and the onset of the pandemic is that all the demographics, too, also saw the benefits associated with plastic packaging, and just plastic more broadly as well. In addition to your earlier e-commerce question is we looked at how different demographics had swayed towards buying products through e-commerce, whether it was e-grocery, or click and collect, or things like that. We saw a significant increase of virtual doubling across all categories.

That's not just from an age demographic perspective, but it's also from a household income perspective. Just for reference, this was not a survey that was conducted in April. We didn't conduct the survey that is representative of this data until the end of August. We had come out of that summer peak, which we thought was going to end up being one of the highest peaks, but it definitely fell a little short from that perspective. Just a ton of insight associated with that paper, I could talk for days about it.

[00:12:39] Liz: That's great, though. How interesting the different facets that you looked at. That's great. I know you mentioned, now that we've had this sort of tsunami of packaging because we're all home and we all rely on Amazon and others, I know sustainability is top of mind for you. Can you just talk about some of the biggest challenges around creating sustainable packaging that meets the need to actually keep the product safe or fresh if you're dealing with food, while also having less impact on the environment? I'm not sure everyone understands just how challenging that can be.

[00:13:19] Jonathan: Yes. This is a big question. I'm trying to think about what's the best way to dissect it. Ultimately, I think the sustainability conversation in regards to flexible packaging and enabling the circular economy really has to start with the education of the consumer. They begin to understand that what material and how to recycle a material to enable a circular economy is critical.

We need to do a better job as an industry. Brands and CPGs need to be doing a better job to really educate consumer on the true value of packaging. That is one of the key things that this point in time has enabled, is for consumers to be receptive to the messaging associated with packaging so that they, I think, understand the true realities that their ground beef is not going to be able to come in a paper bag. That their beef jerky is not going to be able to be delivered in a pouch or just in a corrugated box with nothing else in it. That there is a scientific and factual based reason as to why food products, particularly, need to be packaged the way they are.

Now, that doesn't get us away from the conversation of enabling those products and those material structures to be recyclable. Because for years it's been a conversation around utilizing mixed materials, which, I think, a lot of people now understand, but it still needs some conversations to understand that mixed material packaging is not recyclable because you can't take those two materials and turn them into one.

Point being is that we have to focus on developing and enabling what is known as mixed material films and packaging to become mono-material and still maintaining the barrier properties that are required. At the end of the day, there's still a cost associated with doing all of these things. Those are some of the other aspects that need to be tackled.

[00:16:09] Liz: I think you hit on everything. I'm sure you've heard this number before that flexible packaging represents about 19% of packaging, but only 4% is recycled. How can we do that coming from your position? Like you said, it seems a lot is on the consumer or resident. A lot of them aren't really taking it back to the stores and things like that. What are you seeing?

[00:16:35] Jonathan: Yes. If you pair the recycling numbers of flexible materials with the e-commerce conversation -and this is something that I've been saying for a little while- but as e-commerce continues to grow, it's going to be harder and harder to expect the consumer to go to the grocery store to drop off their flexible materials, because you can't expect the same person that is buying a mailer or getting their granola through e-commerce to say, "The same reasons of convenience that I bought this product, I'm going to throw that all out the window. I'm going to get in the car, I'm going to go to the grocery store, and I'm going to drop off".

Something that, to me, doesn't add up. One of the things that I'm talking about, because I would love to see it, is how do we enable flexible recycling. How do we leverage e-commerce to enable flexible material recycling. Traditional pre-COVID times, or pre-pandemic era, the per-household inside the US, on average, it was about 150 parcel shipments per year. In post-pandemic time, that would be most likely in excess of 200 parcel shipments per year.

That's 200 opportunities to pick up those flexible materials. That's 200 opportunities per household to collect and enable the recycling of flexible materials and make it convenient because that is the true success. We're a convenience-driven society, and it's not just in the US, it's a global conversation around convenience, is what is driving success. That's what has driven the success of e-commerce. We have to make it a convenient process. When you think about it, those 200 opportunities with all those delivery vehicles, they end up going back to the fulfillment center, distribution center, empty.

What can we do? How can we enable them to be collectors? There's a ton of other logistical challenges, but really beginning to figure out ways to tackle that. Also, I think it's not just necessarily the Amazon conversation, but how do places like HelloFresh, and Blue Apron, and companies like that begin to enable recycling of their products and enable the convenient return or convenient recycling of those materials, which can then also further enable and support that circular economy conversation?

Because that's ultimately what we have to do. We have to find ways to really eliminate high-value materials going into the landfill. That is really what is at the pinnacle of that conversation in regards to enabling convenience. I make the analogy, you can't expect to take a minivan and turn it into a Ferrari. It's the same thing with packaging. You can't expect to take low-end materials and turn it into that high-value, high-quality packaging. You've got to find ways to collect it. That's just where my mind and the conversation for me goes.

[00:20:44] Liz: Definitely. Like you said, it's a big question. It's a big issue and multiple stakeholders need to be involved to solve it. I love where your head is and how you're thinking about this. Hopefully, more people will be on board with this, including a lot of the companies that you named. Jonathan, you're part of the Flexible Packaging Association. I think you've been one of their Young Award winners too, right?

[00:21:09] Jonathan: Yes. With regard to the Flexible Packaging Association, when I was a senior at Clemson, I won the Flexible Packaging Association Scholarship. It's been an organization where I've always had a special place. It's always had a special place in my heart. But because I grew up around the industry and because I'm working within the industry, it's one of the key gaps that I've seen, is the opportunity to really develop that next generation of leadership within the Flexible Packaging Association.

Almost two years ago, I went to the senior leadership within FPA and came up with the concept around an Emerging Leadership Council to develop the next generation of leadership. This was not to have a millennial party, but really what I wanted this to be was to be very action-oriented. To be a way that to create some excitement and energy around the Flexible Packaging Association, but industry as well.

Really be a way to create a very strong network within the industry, and really find ways to develop that next generation of leaders. It has been one of the most humbling experiences to be a part of this group with these people. I'm traditionally the guy that is always, "Go, go, go." Like, "Let's put the pedal to the metal." Now we've got close to 50 people representing around 35 different companies. I'm just so impressed.

Like I said, I'm traditionally the one that is putting the pedal to the metal and I'm having to say, "Whoa, guys. We got to take a breather." Because there's just so much energy and excitement. Really, we've broken the Emerging Leadership Council into four committees. The four committees are Education, Recruitment, Leadership Development, and Advocacy. All the committees overflow into each other, but there is some tremendous work through the Education Committee about how do we bring and develop educational programs in schools.

How do we educate kids on the value of recycling, revitalizing a scholarship program. The Recruitment Committee is really focused on understanding some of the challenges with regards to recruiting talent, and also developed an internship program. Leadership Development is creating opportunities for people that are part of the ELC to grow, but also member companies to enable others to be developed.

Then Advocacy is doing some really exciting things with all the policy-related challenges that the industry is being faced with, doing a number of great things, and enabling easy and clear understanding of some of the things that are taking place. But this organization is only really just a year old. It may sound cheesy, but I've used it to describe this group and I will continue to use it to describe this group. The best is yet to come.

I'm just so excited about all the effort and energy that all these people are putting into it. It really gives you a sense of pride in knowing how well set the Flexible Packaging Industry is, based on the work of these people.

[00:25:29] Liz: That's fantastic. It's so inspiring to see that. I know we see that with our 40 Under 40 Awards. It's the same thing, you just know the industry's in good hands with these brilliant, young professionals on the horizon, really making important things happen. I love that.

[00:25:50] Jonathan: Yes. If one day somebody asked me one of the things that I will be most proud of when I retire, it'll be this organization, the group of people, and what they've already done, it's just so exciting and I'm so proud to be a part of it.

[00:26:16] Liz: Good for you. It's amazing. I know the Flexible Packaging Association, I think it was in July that they did a report. They actually found that some flexible packaging has better environmental attributes around carbon impact, fuel usage, water, as well as material disposed, compared to other alternative packaging types like rigid and cardboard. Are you able to speak about any of that?

[00:26:48] Jonathan: Yes. I think one of the studies that came out in July-- I think, actually, it was August, was on the e-commerce and e-commerce lifecycle assessments that were done. I did have a part in some of that work. Really, it showcased the value associated with flexible packaging. I want to first preface to everybody in the audience, I went to school for packaging. I didn't go to school just for work plastic. I didn't go to school just for flexible packaging.

I understand that there is a number of applications where plastic is not the right option. Where flexible may not be the right option, but I do see the value and the necessary environmental and positive impact that flexible packaging and plastic packaging does bring. I just want to make sure that everybody understands that I'm not just blinded to the plastic conversation.

As far as that study was concerned-- And there's a ton of data. It was an intense report, looking and comparing all different types of packaging formats. Whether it was the Tide Eco-Box, which was taking laundry detergent, which traditionally was in a laundry detergent bottle, and transitioning that to a bag and box similar to if you were to buy a box of wine. There was comparison associated with regard to flexible mailers versus paper, or paperboard mailers.

Just the overall life cycle analysis, life cycle assessment in regard to the environmental impact. When you look at the amount of energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and water consumption as well. It's pretty remarkable the difference that exists when you just look at a mailer. Then when you look at, like I've mentioned, the Tide Eco-Box, that is one of the things that-- it's gotten a lot of publicity within the packaging world.

I don't think it's gotten enough broader applicability and credit is that they reduced the concentration or the amount of water inside the detergent so that you would get more loads out of the use. But you would ship less detergent and, really eliminated, also, any need for an over box. Which is one of the biggest problems when you're talking about e-commerce is the shipment of air.

Now Tide has been able to now sell that same product inside grocery stores because they're able to promote the sustainability benefits. That's really where we've seen that omnichannel world collide. I would encourage anybody, either reach out to me or go to the Flexible Packaging Association website, where you can get access to a number of different infographics, which show the comparison across. I believe there's six different formats, which showcase the full life cycle analysis associated with e-commerce and e-commerce packaging.

[00:30:58] Liz: Very cool. That's exciting to hear about some of that. Speaking of that, are there any other formats or materials that you're working on that you're particularly excited about?

[00:31:08] Jonathan: Yes. Being focused in e-commerce it's really about enabling and finding ways to reduce the volume of shipment of air, but also to eliminate breakage and returns. Because that's one of the unintended and negative consequences when you're talking about the e-commerce packaging experience, is eliminating that breakage and damage. Because any reverse logistics, there's no way to come back or no way to be in a positive position.

One of the key areas where we've been focused on is within the liquid segment, within e-commerce is eliminating leakage or product damage, particularly around fitment and ceiling fitments too, films, and really eliminating any leakage. The other thing is really finding ways for shrink films to be a corrugated replacement. The other exciting, when you talk about shrink films being corrugated replacement, is leveraging those shrink films to have a post-consumer recycled resin as a function of those structures.

Really leveraging that to enable a circular economy and the circular economy conversation. There's a number of other things and really looking at what are some of the next generation evolutions of packaging. But also, I think one of the key things when we talk about sustainability, is not just necessarily focused on the environmental impact, but focus on the communities in which we operate, work in, and what we're doing to give back to communities.

Not just in our local communities, but more global. We've been working with one of our close customers, Pregis. They have a brand called the Inspyre Brand where they donate part of their proceeds to an organization called Uzima, which delivers water filtration to areas of the world that don't have access to clean drinking water, in addition to bringing water filtration to communities and areas when there's a natural disaster and they need access to clean drinking water.

Through the Inspyre Brand, proceeds of that go to supporting this organization, Uzima and NOVA, we are also contributing and supporting those efforts as well. That's really been exciting, is to see e-commerce packaging, when you look at it, is enabling people to have clean drinking water. That's one of those things that a lot of people take for granted, but not a lot of people have. That's some of the exciting things in regards to sustainability in e-commerce.

[00:34:27] Liz: That's great that you're doing that and making that connection with the community, because that is so important. Part of the value chain, frankly.

[00:34:39] Jonathan: Right. 100%. At the end of the day, and this is also why I'm so passionate about the power and why the consumer is so important. At the end of the day, we're doing all of this for the consumer. We're doing everything associated with sustainability or consumers. We're doing it for our family. I'm doing it for my kids. I have a two-year-old and an almost-four-year-old. We've got to be progressing the sustainability conversation because of them, but more broadly of consumers as well.

[00:35:20] Liz: Definitely. I'm with you. I have two children too, and we all have to be working toward that in order for this to happen and for all of us to leave the world in a better place. Jonathan, when you are working on new materials or a new packaging, at any point do you pull in recyclers, or MRF operators, or anyone like that to see if things are recyclable or have a better end-of-life treatment?

[00:35:49] Jonathan: Yes, NOVA has been doing a tremendous amount of work in creating collaboration and working with the entire value stream. One of the key things, and you may have seen this, we are now partnered with Merlin and Revolution in selling and bringing PCR materials to the market, supporting and enabling those materials to be incorporated into flexible film structures or rigid packaging structures as well.

We've been focused on that side of things. At the end of the day, there's no silver bullet solution to the packaging sustainability conversation. Really, what it's about is collaboration and partnership. I mentioned only a few, there's a lot of other things that are going on behind the scenes, but I would say if there is somebody listening and they would or have interest in exploring how they could work with a material producer, those are conversations that I'm sure we would be interested in having. It is going to be about collaboration and partnership, that's really what's going to get us progressing and moving in the direction that we need to be.

[00:37:36] Liz: Absolutely, it is what it's all about. Jonathan, what are your thoughts on chemical recycling?

[00:37:42] Jonathan: I think chemical or advanced recycling, there's a lot of excitement and there's been a lot of development and progress over the past few years. Definitely, in my opinion, this is my opinion, is the future, but I think we have to get comfortable with the fact that it's not going to be necessarily the quickest and easiest solution to implement. The technology hasn't necessarily been developed to where it needs to be yet, and the scalability that's going to be required.

Really, that's going to ultimately be where we eventually get to, but we have to make sure that we, once again, are taking the consumer along for the ride as we progressed to it. That's why it's so critical that we do make sure that all packaging is recyclable or recycled ready, so the consumer becomes comfortable with the idea that a pouch is recyclable, or what is the sortation going to look like. There's going to be a process in which getting consumer adoption to enable chemical recycling is going to be critical, but I do believe that advance recycling will happen. It's just a matter of time, and it is very exciting.

It's exciting to see and hear all the progress that's been made, and I'm looking forward to the day where it all becomes a true reality. It is about making sure that we make those step changes and that step change progress with enabling recyclable materials and enabling post-consumer recycled resins to be incorporated into the film structures so that consumers become more and more comfortable. It circles back to some of the previous conversations that we've had where I've referenced the power and the importance associated with the consumer.

[00:40:16] Liz: Absolutely, without their buy-in and their work this is not going to happen. As far as chemical recycling goes, I know it can be controversial, but more innovation has to be put toward it and next level of it. I think some people fear that people will look at it as the be all end all, and then you don't have to worry about exactly how much product you're putting into the system, they're thinking, "Well, if chemical recycling comes along", then everyone thinks that will just take care of everything, which it won't.

Like you said, there's no silver bullet, but it's a piece of the chain and it's a piece of the innovation factor. It doesn't mean that consumers have a license to go wild and consume and buy everything, but it's still part of the chain, the puzzle, and the innovation going forward.

[00:41:10] Jonathan: Yes. I totally agree, it's a piece of the puzzle and there's multiple pieces that play. I think the consumer is the most critical part to the conversation, we've got to make sure that they easily understand what the progress is being made, and I totally agree with your statement that it's not just a catch-all, but there's got to be areas and situations where it's not going to be the only or ideal solution.

[00:41:46] Liz: Absolutely. Great, I loved our conversation, is there anything else you want to share, Jonathan, before I let you go about your busy day?

[00:41:53] Jonathan: I welcome and would love to engage in conversations with anybody that's listening to the podcast. I can be found on all social media handles or all social media platforms under the handle Jake Went Packaged, really would welcome conversation, questions, or where I can be of help. Also, would love to connect with anybody on Clubhouse or anywhere, but this one make sure that we get the recognition that flexible packaging and plastic packaging more broadly really is a sustainable solution and does have a positive environmental impact.

If there's anybody out there that is considering or looking for an industry to be a participant or considering a career, the flexible packaging industry has a place and a spot for anyone. We'd love to have the conversations there as well.

[00:43:12] Liz: That's fantastic, I love that. Just the fact how much you love that will be part of your legacy, I think it's great that you're really encouraging that. The flexible packaging industry seems to be as close-knit as the waste and recycling industry, I can definitely applaud that. Thank you for the work you're doing there to encourage others to join.

[00:43:34] Jonathan: No, thank you. Thank you for everything that you do in making sure that waste, recycling, and the packaging industry has a voice because, without you, we wouldn't have as big of a voice and as big of a reach. I truly appreciate all the work that you're doing and everybody's doing it at Waste360 in making sure that sustainability is a paramount conversation.

[00:44:06] Liz: Thank you, I look forward to us talking more, hopefully here and on the social networks as well. This has been fun, Jonathan, thank you so much.

[00:44:16] Jonathan: Thank you so much, I really appreciate it.

[00:44:19] Liz: Thank you for listening. It would mean the world if you would take a moment to rate or review this podcast, and if you share it with us on one of our social networks. We are giving out some fun Nothing Wasted Podcastswag, just tag us and see what you get. Thanks so much.


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