Dennis Salazar's Big Impact on Green Packaging

Dennis Salazar's Big Impact on Green Packaging

Back in 2007, Dennis Salazar and his wife, Lenora, took a leap.

With about a half a century of combined experience in the packaging industry, they decided to start their own company.

And to make it as “green” as possible.

Then Dennis did something smart. He wrote about his plans. He didn’t write a white paper. “They’re long, they’re boring, they take a lot of time and nobody reads them,” he says. Instead he started a blog, which is no easy feat for someone who’s technical skills aren’t top-of-the-class. “I’m not a young techie,” he told me, unnecessarily, as we struggled to connect via Skype.

He called his first blog post “Am I Retrainable for Sustainable?” and wrote:

OK, I admit it. I am confused and perhaps even a tad nervous.

After more than 30 years as a packaging professional focused on flexible—dare I say—plastic packaging, this new movement people are calling ”sustainable” packaging has me seriously concerned.

He obviously didn’t have all the answers, but he promised to try to figure out what’s best for his customers and for the environment. He listed Seven R’s — renew, reuse, recycle, remove, reduce, revenue and read — promising to educate himself, his customers and ordinary consumers as he learned more. “That’s the beauty of this market,” he says. “While we teach on a daily basis, we learn on a daily basis.”

Today, Salazar Packaging is doing well. Based in Plainfield, Ill., the firm has customers from all around the U.S. including well-known national brands like Stonyfield Farms and Method and smaller firms like Coyuchi, which makes bath, bedding and baby products from organic cotton, and Volcano Island Honey Co., which makes Hawaiian white organic honey.

I ordinarily don’t write about small b-to-b companies — my focus is the FORTUNE 500, and consumer brands — but Dennis, who is now 56, has a story worth telling, for several reasons.

First, he didn’t just talk about making change; he made it. This reminded me of Seth Godin’s new book, Poke the Box, which is all about taking initiative rather than waiting for things to happen. “We had two nice, lucrative, but unfulfilling jobs, and we decided to do something different,” Dennis told me.

Second, he skillfully used digital media to spread the word about his work; that first blog post ran on GreenBiz.com and Sustainable is Good, as well as on websites that specialize in packaging. The Internet helps level the playing field between small and big companies.

Finally, he was open and transparent about what he knew, and what he didn’t, and reached out to others for help, joining groups like Green America, which publishes a National Green Pages. More companies could adopt this approach — ask you customers, your suppliers, your employees for help in solving problems. He formed a Green Packaging Group with competitors to hash out issues, publicly.

This is not only smart business but fulfilling, Dennis says. “One of the things about the green world is that you meet a lot of nice people,” he said.

There’s a fair amount of complexity to the packaging business, but some of the ways to make “green” packaging are very simple. “We sell boxes that fit,” Dennis says. How many times have you received a small item in a big package? “It’s criminal, it really is,” he says. I’ve always wondered, for example, why tubes of toothpaste come in cardboard boxes — for shipping or stacking on shelves?

Like me, Dennis is the kind of person who keeps an eye out for waste. About McDonald’s, for example, he says, "They probably use recycled content better than any corporation in America. They do an outstanding job. But they also create packaging that doesn’t need to be.” Case in point: the printed, die cut paperboard carrier box that is used to package and carry the iconic Happy Meal.

In a recent blog post, Dennis writes:

Our four-year-old granddaughter’s favorite weekend lunch is the McDonald's Play Land near our home. The routine is always the same as our little Harmony orders her Happy Meal complete with her chicken nuggets and a toy. Harmony’s degree of hunger determines whether the food or the toy becomes the immediate focus but she has NEVER taken a second look at the printed, paperboard carrier box.

…I had to ask, why? Who is this box designed for and is it really necessary?

This may sound strange and certainly unexpected coming from a career packaging guy but the truth is that in some cases the best packaging is no packaging at all.

Merely by switching from a cardboard box to a paper bag, McDonald’s could save tens of thousands of pounds of waste — and significant money — while making environmentalist as well as kids “happy.”

That’s one thing that Dennis knows for certain about packaging: Less is always more. “If we don’t learn how to green packaging in a cost-efficient way,” he says, “we’re not going to be successful.”