Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

leonkaye headshot

WestRock Sponsored Series

What's Next in Sustainable Packaging?

What to Expect from Sustainable Packaging Innovation in 2021

Words by Leon Kaye
WestRock Sustainable Packaging Innovation

Consumers and companies alike are growing increasingly concerned of the effects of climate change and are now more “waste aware.” In a recent survey, nearly 75 percent of consumers worldwide said they would be willing to pay more for products in sustainable packaging. As interest grows, so does innovation. Sustainable, and even circular, packaging options hit the market monthly.

The challenge: Addressing both safety and sustainability

One company responding to this shift while driving new trends in packaging is Atlanta-based WestRock, a paper-based packaging solutions company that employs more than 50,000 people with annual revenues of more than $17 billion. “Sustainability is not about compliance or a trend, it’s how we do business,” said Brandi Colander, who was appointed chief sustainability officer of WestRock in November of 2020. 

One year into the global pandemic, it has become clear that while consumers prioritize health and safety, they don’t want it to be at the expense of sustainability. When it comes to packaging, they insist on both. A recent WestRock survey of consumers confirms more than eight in 10 consumers said it is important for brands to find a way to balance safety and the environment as they design packaging.

Rethinking recycling and the paper supply chain

WestRock and other companies in the packaging sector are developing alternatives to plastic that offer the same performance, flexibility and strength, made from a renewable resource while also recyclable.

There are some caveats, Colander explained. 

“WestRock is working to provide innovative packaging solutions, many of which replace plastic and are a sustainable alternative,” Colander told us. “And while many consumers think that packaging made from recycled material is more sustainable, the fact is that new wood fiber must be added. Sustainable forestry is a key part of the sustainable packaging story.”

Sustainable packaging all starts with the supply chain

Chief among the details many don’t know: Wood-based fibers can only be recycled five to seven times on average before deteriorating, meaning that eventually they can no longer be a part of the wider paper and cardboard manufacturing process, Colander said. Virgin fiber must be incorporated to increase the longevity of the fiber cycle in packaging. With that in mind, WestRock says responsibly managed virgin fibers play a pivotal role in promoting greater sustainability and performance, a critical reason why the company says it prioritizes sustainable forestry.

To that end, WestRock relies on the relationships it has with small, private landowners here in the U.S. “The act of sourcing fiber from responsibly managed forests is what ultimately preserves the forest, which might otherwise be cleared for alternate uses. The benefit is not only in forest conservation, but also in the replanting of new trees which throughout their lifetime, help to sequester carbon from the atmosphere,” Colander said.

The occasional harvesting of timber benefits everyone: WestRock has a steady supply of timber, while revenues help landowners.  “Effectively working toward a more circular economy comes down to partnerships and patience,” Colander added.

Reinventing the functionality of paper and cardboard

Years of research and development by companies such as WestRock are advancing circularity. New designs in fiber-based packaging are increasingly reusable, recyclable or compostable — helping to transform the consumer-packaged goods (CPG) industry. Many CPG companies are now acting to minimize their waste footprints and reimagine alternatives to reduce dependence on plastics.

Paper-based alternatives to plastic

WestRock is in the middle of this evolution. To start, consumers have long experienced frustration from hard-to-open clamshell packages. One of the company’s products offers a replacement for plastic blister clamshell cases with a simpler blister card. This paperboard alternative offers what the company says is a strong, flexible, and more sustainable alternative to the conventional blister seal and clamshell choices on the market – and it also features the strong tear resistance that retailers demand to deter theft.

Then, there is the question of how to encase products like deodorants, lip balms and other oil-based products that have long been packaged in plastic. Here, some of the more unconventional yet promising packaging innovations could soon become mainstream across the health and personal care products sectors. WestRock’s answer is its EcoPush product line, an all-paperboard package that can store oil-based solids such as balms, perfumes and common toiletries. It could soon gain traction with food companies as well, Colander said. “The really cool thing we’re doing here is solving for the exterior materials as well as the interior, replacing plastics through and through with a lined, oil-resistant paper barrier,” she explained. 

Finally, for higher-end products such as cosmetics, WestRock offers the Paper Palette, which Colander describes as a fresh alternative to traditional, plastic-based makeup palettes. “I expect with the long-lasting effects of the pandemic, we’re going to see a greater demand for fiber-based alternatives, particularly in the cosmetics sector, as brands try to solve for in-store sampling in new, sustainable, economical and hygienic ways,” she told us.

recyclable pizza box sustainable packaging innovations
WestRock conducted a study that concluded normal amounts of grease and residual cheese do not negatively affect manufacturing of new product from this recycled fiber. WestRock then partnered with Domino’s to launch recycling.dominos.com — a hub for information to promote the recyclability of pizza boxes. 

Consumers must be part of this conversation

These new developments give Colander a sense of optimism, but she insists there is still plenty of work to do when it comes to informing and educating consumers.

For example, WestRock has already invested considerable resources in challenging the assumption that the ubiquitous cardboard pizza box is not recyclable. In fact, the company recently completed a study that concluded normal amounts of residual grease and cheese do not affect the manufacturing of new paper and cardboard products from those recycled fibers.

As consumer shopping habits continue to shift, there may also be renewed focus on effective curbside residential recycling programs. WestRock says it invested $2 million in the October upgrade of its Marietta, Georgia, recycling facility to improve the performance of single-stream recycling. “Moving forward, we’ll continue eyeing areas for investment, educating stakeholders and developing innovative sustainable packaging options that improve circularity,” Colander said.

This article series is sponsored by WestRock and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.

Image credit: WestRock and Hello I'm Nik/Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye

More stories from Leadership & Transparency