How to achieve better results with sustainable packaging

Kari Embree

June 26, 2014

7 Min Read
How to achieve better results with sustainable packaging
Albe Zakes, vp of communication, TerraCycle Inc.

The Global Food & Beverage Summit returns to Chicago on July 15-17, 2014 where it will be held at the Chicago Hyatt Regency.  This year the event is rolling out two dynamic learning tracks that offer high quality learning to those in the food & beverage sector—Strategies for Marketing & Brand Differentiation plus Technical Intelligence to Enhance Production & Engineering.

Packaging Digest had the opportunity to connect with Albe Zakes, vp of communication, TerraCycle Inc., who will be speaking at the event. His background includes playing an integral role in the transformation of TerraCycle from a small start-up selling liquefied worm poop in reused soda bottles into a successful and highly visible recycling innovator that runs pre- and post-consumer packaging reclamation programs for major manufacturers such as Kraft Foods, Frito-Lay, L’Oreal, 3M, Kimberly-Clark, Proctor & Gamble and Newell Rubbermaid.

For companies that are looking to increase their triple bottom line, what are some key practice points for developing a successful sustainability program?

Zakes: Unfortunately, sustainability and social responsibility programs don't come in a "one-size-fits-all" so any company looking to improve their triple bottom line, must first understand where their issues and opportunities exist. A good way to start this process is review each major step of your supply chain individually.

Start with the "low-hanging" fruit, your own offices and employees. For environmental improvement, look to see how you can reduce waste and increase recycling or reuse. Naming an "eco-champion" for the office helps to provide a more defined sense of responsibility. Then look at all the ways you can reduce waste, without affecting productivity. Do you have a double-sided printing policy? Are recycling bins clearly labelled and widely available? Do you provide reusable coffee mugs and dish ware? Consider a small "reward" for those who bike or carpool to work. Then consider gamifying the whole process. Have internal contests about which department/floor/section can reduce, reuse and recycle the most. Have a leader board and watch the competition heat up while helping to reduce your company's eco-impact. Then for social impact there are fun easy ways to get your employees involved and actually increase their positivity and commitment. Consider local volunteer days, bonus time off for running in charity races, setting up clothing, shoe or can food drives in the office. Every little bit helps and most employees will be glad to participate. 

Then look at your transportation and manufacturing, a trickier place to improve, but with bigger pay off if done correctly. After all, yours is a for-profit business and making sure you keep your costs controlled is vital. Consider renewable energies in your manufacturing or whether alternative transportation is viable, be it electric cars or using simply using freight train versus trucking. Many investments in sustainable energy can become cost-saving measures, but often have very long horizons before that is the case. At TerraCycle, we leased our roofs to a solar company, who then installed solar panels on our factories and offices. We recoup serious energy savings, the solar company sells the left over credits and in 20 years we will own the panels outright. All at no cost to the company! Try to balance a few long-term investments and with a few smaller, easy and less costly to implement ideas. Look at reducing your post-industrial waste as an easy cost saving solutions. More and more companies are providing free or low-cost recycling solution for trim or off-spec materials, reducing your impact and tipping fees.

Triple bottom line efforts don't have to detract from the fiscal bottom line. Start with smaller, easy projects like increased recycling options, updating company policies and running intern drives and charity efforts. Then you can get a sense of your stakeholders’ willingness to tackle the bigger issues.

How can companies increase consumer engagement to purchase sustainably and ethically-packaged products?

Zakes: Education, education, education. Consumers can't be expected to pay a premium of any size or make a brand-switch simply because they are told your package is more sustainable or ethical. They need to know why the issue you are addressing matters and what eco/social impact the less responsible choice is creating. Further, they need to how why your package is better, not just have faith that you’re telling the truth. 

Getting that message across is not easy but can be delivered with honest, straight-forward marketing. Bring the issue to life visually through images, infographics and third party endorsements from reputable figures. Use these talking points and images on your package, POP materials, social media and your website. Consumers trust what they see and information from respected authorities. Use these channels to educate and inspire consumers on why the issue matters and why they should make the better choice. Ask for feedback and give your consumers a voice. Today's social media driven world is a 2-way conversation with consumer like never before. Don't just tell your consumer that your package is more responsible; ask them for their help on a journey to a better package. Take pride in the improvements you've already made and ask them for their opinion on how to make it even better. Consumers feel a much stronger affinity to a product they feel they've helped to build or improved and are far more loyal to a company they think is actually interested in their opinion. 

How can an organization maximize its impact on the community and ensure its future sustainability?

Zakes: The key is combining long-term and short-term goals into a strategy that can have both an immediate and long-lasting affect. Start with smaller ways to engage the local communities around your offices and facilities. This can take the form of the aforementioned charity drives, mentorship programs, local clean-up efforts or donations to local non-profits. While there are some small costs to these efforts they can also create shared value through PR, Social Media and general impact consumer awareness and opinion.

Once you've started to develop these relationships with the local community, use the experience to create templates for how these events can make both social impact and help your business, then decide which to continue or make into annual or recurring events. As your view turns towards a longer horizon think about adding to these annual outreach efforts by setting up a local scholarship fund or mounter/fellowship program. Work with the recyclers and waste management companies in your area to understand how you can work together better to reduce waste. Talk with local government to see who you can support their beautification or environmental initiatives. Host a community "town hall" to discuss and understand the impacts—both positive and negative—that your business and others in the area have on the community. While that type of public transparency might seem risky or intimidating at first, you will gain invaluable insight and massive respect from consumers simply for your willingness to listen.

How do you see the sustainable packaging industry evolving? Future trends and innovations?

Zakes: Sustainable packaging has a very bright future. Innovation is taking place across the board and has the buy in from all stakeholders from manufacturers to purchasers to consumers to governments. Tactics like designed for re-use are being explored by giants like Coca-Cola. Compostable, bio-based plastics are becoming more affordable and applicable to a wider range of packaging formats. Post-consumer recycling opportunities for packaging falsely labelled "non-recyclable" are booming lead by TerraCycle, Aveda, Crayola and otherwise. Ways to reduce the energy or materials required to manufacturer packaging are blossoming and more and more decreasing the carbon impact of shipping—through lighter weight packaging or items that stack better—is becoming the norm.

Packaging will forever be a part of modern consumerism, but the day when packaging is celebrated—not vilified—for its environmental impact grows ever closer.

Albe will be presenting on July 16, 2014 at 10:00 a.m. To find out more about the event, please visit For more information about how to register for the summit and pre-conference workshop, visit or call 310-445-8535.

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