Making packaging more sustainable

We spoke to Luca Zerbini, Head of Marketing, Innovation and Sustainability for global packaging leader Amcor, about the challenges of creating innovations that work for entire industries and Amcor’s pledge to make all its packaging reusable or recyclable by 2025.

Tell us about your role at Amcor?
When I joined Amcor as head of strategy over four years ago, the company had been very successful through acquisitions and operational excellence. We realised going forward we had to focus on organic growth, bringing value to customers and sustainability. Amcor was already doing a lot of good things in sustainability, such as ensuring every project reduced energy use, waste and water consumption. But our focus turned to the packaging itself, and this has become core to our business. Our customers want to know how to deal with higher awareness of the issues created by plastics in general. We made a commitment at the start of 2018 to make all our packages 100 percent reusable or recyclable by 2025, and are helping our customers make this transition.

What does innovation mean to you?
Innovation means solving customers’ issues or opening their eyes to opportunities they have not yet seen. It’s about finding solutions that are not obvious and that bring value, for example: sustainability, ease of use, portability, safety, differentiation, and making products ecommerce-ready. These are all the big areas making packaging a top priority for companies.

How has innovation at Amcor evolved over the last 5 years?
The growth of ecommerce and the importance of sustainability have impacted our strategy. We’re running fewer, larger projects. Previously, Amcor developed solutions for individual customers. It meant there were thousands of very specific projects every year. It was inefficient, and didn’t allow us to anticipate the customer’s needs. Now, we have more than halved the number of projects we do, but our innovations are more impactful.

What structures did you put in place to change innovation?
We first defined where to play: we focused on 10 priority verticals where we knew we could add value (previously, we were serving more than 60). For every vertical, we created an innovation roadmap defining critical solutions needed. We’re experts in these industries: we understand their design needs, processes and material science challenges. We understand the machinery they use and try to find commercially viable solutions that can be developed with minimal changes to our customers’ current machine assets.

“We are all using the same planet, and everyone is aware that we need to do something. Because packaging is what we make at Amcor, we have a responsibility to lead the discussion.”

Luca Zerbini, Amcor

What are the key obstacles to a more sustainable packaging market?
We need to ensure mass adoption. To help drive this, we’re working on sustainability initiatives with global collaborators including the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the Circular Economy for Flexible Packaging (CEFLEX).

One of these collaborations has led to an agreed definition of what can be recycled, from a flexible packaging perspective. We’re trying to standardise which types of plastics are used, in order to simplify the recycling process and accelerate the move toward a circular economy.

The second obstacle is confusion around terminology. For instance, some ‘biodegradable’ or ‘compostable’ products are damaging because they create microplastics – so-called “oxo-degradable” solutions are increasingly being banned as a result. The industry is focusing on recyclability, as compostability is very hard to achieve and best used where it facilitates the composting of food waste.

What innovations are you incorporating to help make a difference?
We continue to simplify and reduce the amount of packaging, and develop technical solutions where there has never been one before. For instance, wet pet-food packaging wasn’t recyclable due to layers of aluminium and PET that enable the food inside to be cooked and preserved. We have replaced the aluminium layer with an extremely thin barrier coating of SiOx (‘glass’) and have the only plant in Europe able to do that. We’re also working on pet food pouches that replace the PET layer with a recyclable polyethylene (PE) film. We expect this will be a breakthrough for the industry.

Packaging made from compostable and bio-based materials such as fungi and corn are being explored. How does this impact your business?
Typically, these are still niche solutions and do not solve the wider issue. Packaging for perishable products such as food, beverages and pharmaceuticals, needs to have the right protective barrier properties. If you use packaging material that’s renewable but increases food waste because it lacks barrier then the environment doesn’t win. We do have some bio-based plastic packaging on the market today that’s suitable for food and beverages, and Amcor would be the first to invest in any new sustainable material that meets our requirements.

What are your takeaways from working in sustainability today?
True innovation requires time and collective effort. It also requires education, so people understand the real issues and avoid inadvertently damaging the environment. Amcor is serious about this topic and we are investing extensive resources to lead the industry.

We are all using the same planet, and everyone is aware that we need to do something. Because packaging is what we make at Amcor, we have a responsibility to lead the discussion – and that’s exactly what we’re doing.