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Sustaining the Lead

By AICC Staff

June 1, 2018

Over the last 15 to 20 years, converters of all sizes have been leading the charge to adopt more sustainable business practices, use more eco-friendly consumables, and produce quality customer packaging that is responsibly sourced and highly recyclable. It has not always been easy. Often, there were weak links in the production chain: coatings and inks for which there were no environmentally friendly options, mills without a clear mission for handling wastewater and emissions—and even customers, who balked at the often higher costs of incorporating sustainable materials in their packaging.

Times have changed. According to some of the industry’s leaders in sustainability, those weak links have been addressed. Being sustainable no longer has to be some lofty, unattainable goal or the always-more-expensive choice reserved for premium jobs. Where customers are concerned, it no longer has to be the exception; in fact, it often is the expectation.

For the most successful sustainability-driven companies, environmental responsibility is not an add-on or an afterthought. It is an integral part of who these converters are.

That doesn’t mean the “problem” of sustainability has been solved. For paper-based converters, perhaps the largest and most visible industry in the world that relies on renewable natural resources, ongoing innovation in this area is vital for sustained growth. And, as some boxmakers have discovered, there is still plenty of room to innovate when it comes to sustainability.

Managing Sustainability

For the most successful sustainability-driven companies, environmental responsibility is not an add-on or an afterthought. It is an integral part of who these converters are.

Allen Ennis, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Pacific Southwest Container, says, “Back in the ’90s, sustainability was a buzzword, but a lot of us didn’t really understand it. Today, there’s a real appreciation for what it is and what it can do. It’s become part of our daily business life.”

For Pacific Southwest Container—a privately held business focusing on corrugated, litho-laminate, folding cartons, and protective packaging—sustainability is an active part of the business. “We manage it continuously, and we have management that is exclusively focused on it.

“Regarding paper, we are Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) certified and involved in the Sustainable Forestry Education (SFE) program. We use those agencies and protocols to ensure that we’re using paper from sustainable sources. We follow up annually with third-party audits to make sure everything we produce is sourced from organizations with responsible practices.

“We have an environmental management system and platform to manage sustainability across the company. We’re even interested in understanding the forestry practices of the mills we work with. That’s very important to our customers as well.

“Of course, we’re always looking at better ways to manage sustainability. We work constantly on integrating more and more environmentally friendly consumables into our process—from inks and solvents to lighting.

“In the past, in the printing process, to give one example, it used to be very difficult to find environmentally friendly solvents and coatings. That isn’t an issue now. Now, all of the categories are very well-defined. We’re finding it very achievable to be sustainable.” While much has been made of advances in inks, dyes, glues, and solvents, Ennis notes that advances in hardware have also been significant. “Modern equipment is more efficient. It uses less consumables, while still achieving good performance. There’s a lot of work being done across our industry with regard to supplemental equipment designed to consume less coatings, adhesives, solvents, etc. That area is still developing, but it’s come a long way.”

Innovative sustainability management also means knowing where to focus the most attention. Mark Mathes, CEO of Vanguard Packaging, regarded as perhaps the most sustainable corrugated plant in North America, notes, “We’re constantly going through all our tenets of sustainability and asking, ‘Do we do something more [in this or that area], or do we let it be?’—because we don’t want to start making moves that run counter to the moves we’ve made already.” For example, he points out that Vanguard’s total waste rate is a mere 4 percent. “So we’re only 4 percent away from 0. But capturing that 4 percent is not really economically viable. That’s one area where [reducing waste even further] currently doesn’t make sense.”

What does make sense for Vanguard is a holistic approach to sustainability that extends far beyond packaging.

Beyond the Box

In addition to its famous 400,000-square-foot facility, built primarily underground in Missouri, Vanguard proactively seeks partnerships with suppliers who equip them for improved sustainability across all production areas.

For example, at Vanguard’s urging, GF Puhl created a new corrugated scrap system in which two machines share a single blower, drawing 40 percent less electricity as a result. BCM Inks supplies Vanguard with pine tree rosin-based inks twice monthly instead of three times a week. All leftover ink is blended to create black ink. Finally, the company’s nonrecyclable waste is put to work as an alternative solid fuel to help fuel the power plant of a local cement maker. Even the leftover ash from that plant is recycled, added into the concrete the plant produces—including the floors in Vanguard’s own facility.

While Vanguard may be well-known for their many steps forward regarding sustainability, Mathes believes that any boxmaker can make similar strides if they are open to inventive solutions.

“When we built the building we’re in now, I got all of my people together—production, managers, everybody—and we brainstormed one day. We asked everyone, ‘What can we do to be more responsible, more sustainable?’ And we came up with some of the best ideas that didn’t cost anything. All because we had enough sense to ask, ‘What do you guys think?’

“Here’s an example: When we were building this building, someone asked, ‘Doesn’t it take chemicals to clean the carpet?’ It absolutely does. They suggested that instead of installing thousands of yards of carpet we keep the concrete floor and just stain it. We took a similar approach when it came to ceiling tiles. Instead of installing a drop ceiling with thousands of ceiling tiles, we eliminated the ceiling tiles completely. We lowered the lights and painted everything above them black. Now the ceiling is essentially invisible. Our plant is just one example after another of things like that.”

Mathes points out that Vanguard’s sustainability plan even includes a health-and-safety component, which has dramatically reduced hours lost due to illness. “Do you know how much time plants lose because of flu?” he says. “I know one plant that had to shut down for a week because of the flu.” In addition to sponsoring free flu shots for employees, Vanguard took steps to eliminate one of the main contributors to spreading illness: shared metal surfaces. “Every sink in our facility and every toilet-flushing mechanism is driven by a solar panel mounted directly under the lights, so we’re reusing the energy that’s driving the lights to power those facilities. Nobody has to touch the metal. We haven’t been pounded by the flu in years.”

Such measures are possible for operations of any size. While solar panels and other energy-saving solutions may be costly upfront, utility-based rebates and other credits can help expenses and savings balance out. Richard Goldberg, vice president of operations for President Container Group, says, “We partnered with a New York State energy rebate program called NYSERDA, which promotes all types of energy efficiencies that aid in sustainability. That led us to develop a solar farm—of 19,000 panels—and realize the associated monetary savings/payback.” Mathes adds, “Every light in our facility is motion-sensitive. We got enough of a tax credit from our power company that it paid for all the special switches we needed. And when we put in high-efficiency fixtures, the rebate almost paid for those fixtures.”

“Yes, some of the capital-enabled sustainability practices might involve large or material capital investment upfront,” Ennis acknowledges, “but savings will happen over time.”

Taking the Lead

Whether sustainability has been, as so many say, part of your corporate DNA from the very start or a focus that has developed over time, there are steps any converter can take to improve their efforts and reach their own sustainability goals.

“My advice for others who want to improve their sustainability is to talk to your colleagues,” Ennis says. “Talk to other people in the industry. All of these things we’re doing at PSC are readily available to everyone. The more we use them, the better it is for the industry, our customers, and our employees—and the environment.”

Mathes agrees, adding, “For other AICC members who want to improve their sustainability efforts, you need to understand that there’s always ‘low-hanging fruit’ ”—that is, changes that are low-cost and easily implemented. “Grab that first. People get intimidated and think sustainability is way too expensive. There are always steps you can take regardless of how small your company and how small your budget.”

While solar panels and other energy-saving solutions may be costly upfront, utility-based rebates and other credits can help expenses and savings balance out.

Ennis also points out that sustainability must apply to business strategies as well. “An important part of focusing on sustainability means that your business needs to be sustainable. We need to find cost-effective ways to do these things. Being sustainable can be more expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. Cost-effective solutions are out there. We need to find economically sustainable ways to do these things. That’s a part of the conversation we should be having with every customer.”

It is also important that these conversations about sustainability—among management, with suppliers, with customers—remain ongoing. That is how new equipment, new processes, even new products come to fruition.

Innovative opportunities continue to exist for boxmakers willing to pursue them.

“We are learning of alternative fuel processing plants to utilize our recycled plastics that then provide certification of the plastics and other materials as a sustainable discharge from our factory,” Goldberg notes.

At Vanguard, Mathes is continuing to see advances in digital printing. “We consider digital printing to be the next big wave in sustainability,” he says. “By eliminating label lamination, you eliminate the label completely—along with the energy and chemicals to print the label, you eliminate the freight to get the label to our plant, and you eliminate the energy and glue to laminate it.”

Your plant and your customers may take you in a different direction entirely. But wherever your pursuit for innovation leads, Mathes believes there is only one way to be successful when it comes to sustainability: “Sustainability has to come from the top, and it has to be visible among the people at the top, or it’ll never push its way down. It is a top-down-driven issue.”

RobertRobert Bittner is a Michigan-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to BoxScore.

AICC offers a “Sustainability Audit” checklist to its members to help them become more economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable. It can be accessed online at