Elizabeth Rhue, vice president of Global Environmental, Sustainability, & Technical Services, with Sonoco is based in Hartsville, South Carolina.
Sonoco provides sustainable packaging solutions and recycling services. The company operates five MRFs across the southeastern United States, and 16 recycling facilities.
Rhue is responsible for leading Sonoco’s global sustainability programs and environmental services for all of the company’s consumer- and industrial-related packaging businesses, including working directly with Sonoco’s key customers and business leaders to achieve improved product sustainability and environmental footprint for Sonoco’s operations. Additionally, her team is responsible for environmental compliance, product safety and Sonoco’s consumer packaging pilot facilities, testing labs, and design engineering services.
In this Q&A, Rhue, a Waste360 40 Under 40 award winner, discusses her passion for sustainability, the importance of packaging design, and what she loves about her work.
Waste360: What are some of the major business challenges your department addresses?
Elizabeth Rhue: I would say carbon footprint. Whether it’s the footprint of our packaging itself, such as trying to understand how we can design and shape our packaging in a way that it minimizes the carbon footprint, and also looking at the carbon footprint of our operations. Reducing energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, tend to be one of our biggest challenges.
Obviously, we want to do the right thing for the environment, but also it's something that our customers are challenging us to do, as well. When everyone is looking at their emissions throughout their supply chain, they are wanting to understand how they can reduce the footprint of the final product they put on the shelf, in the case of brand owners, or how their supply chain contributes to their overall carbon footprint.
Waste360: What was your professional pathway to your current role?
Rhue: My degree is a packaging science degree from Clemson University. I started off in packaging design and development for probably about 12 years of my career, focusing on what we call our rigid paper cans.
Then, I wanted to take a bit of a career pivot away from the technical role and gain some more skill sets. I moved over into our recycling business, Sonoco Recycling, for about three years, managing our now divested S3 business, Sonoco Sustainability Solutions. That group was responsible for helping divert waste from landfills. I did that role for about three years and then moved into a marketing role with our flexible packaging business.
About three years ago, I was given the opportunity to lead our sustainability team globally, taking that experience of understanding materials and the technical development side; understanding the waste and recycling industry, which is very highly interconnected with packaging; and then having the marketing background. More recently, I have taken on the environmental compliance piece along with product safety and other technical services.
Waste360: What is something you wish consumers understood about packaging, specifically, or sustainability, in general?
Rhue: I think part of it is consumers have to understand they play a role in the packaging value chain and in the recycling process. I think there are a lot of things that we can do from a packaging design perspective to make something technically recyclable. There's a lot of infrastructure that can be put in place in our MRFs to help sort materials once they get there, whether that's robotics or optical sorters or other pieces of equipment; but, the key is it doesn't matter if we do any of those things if the consumer doesn't do his or her part, which is to put that package in the recycling bin or compost bin, wherever it's supposed to go.
I think, oftentimes, consumers have, rightfully so, frustration about the confusion around recycling and what to recycle or not to recycle. Obviously, there are things that we need to do as an industry to help educate consumers and make that easier and clearer for them, but where it is easy and where it is clear, even in some of those cases, we're not seeing the consumer play their role.
A great example is PET bottles that are very easily recyclable, really across the country, and you see relatively low rates of recycling there. I think the key is for consumers to understand they've got a role to play, that the recycling system does work, but it requires everyone in that value chain.
Waste360: What about businesses wanting to be more sustainable? Do they understand that there are a lot of decisions to be made for a product to be considered sustainable?
Rhue: I think it would be helpful for businesses to understand and think about sustainability as being a very dynamic topic. The definition of sustainability can vary significantly. I started the conversation talking about carbon footprint and managing carbon footprint being one of our challenges that we're focused on. Other companies might be focused specifically on recyclability, other companies might be focused on water usage. It is really important to think about what are those things that from an environmental perspective your business touches most or has an impact on. Which of those things should you put a focus on?
It's not just looking at sustainability in a singular lens, but understanding that there are many, different ways that we can drive sustainable results as businesses. Part of what we have to do is really understand, what is our impact today and what are the areas that we can focus on?
Waste360: In your own words, how would you describe Sonoco’s promise of “better packaging, better life?”
Rhue: I think one of the things that attracted me to the packaging industry was that there is this whole army of people who work on these packages, who work on the design, on the raw materials that go into it, into the design of the machinery that converts it, that fills it, on the transportation and the testing and all these things. Then at the end of the day, this package touches the lives of so many people.
The promise of “better packaging, better life” means that we are doing what we are supposed to do from a packaging perspective and ensuring that our packages meet the requirements of our end customers, and their end users, in terms of delivering the appropriate product protection and shelf life and all those other things. We are delivering on that promise.
We're ultimately driving better outcomes, whether that's fresh product that reaches the customer, end consumer, without damage, and then we're also creating a better life for our employees by being a strong and reputable company, a company that stands by the quality of our products, a company that does the right thing, that drives better life for our employees, better life for the communities in which we operate, and then ultimately, again, better life for the consumers that are using our packaging.
Waste360: What is something that you enjoy about the work that you do?
Rhue: Problem solving. That's the thing that I enjoy the most about all the roles that I've been in. At the beginning of my career, the problem to solve might have been how do we make this lower cost material run well on a piece of equipment? How do we ensure a change to our package design so that it does not impact any of the properties of the requirements of the end user?
Moving into where I am today, problem solving still exists, but on a different level. It is, how do we manage challenges around extended producer responsibility legislation happening on a state-by-state basis? What does that mean for our businesses and what can we do to help either mitigate risk that it may create or leverage and enhance the opportunities created by some of this policy? How do we take things that may be looked at as a risk and use business strategies, and turn them into opportunities? How do we show the value of sustainability and all the work that we're doing to our key business leaders?
It's all about asking, what is the problem, and how do you solve it? That's what I enjoy about all of the roles that I've had an opportunity to have here at Sonoco.