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Building sustainable product life cycles: A Q&A with WestRock’s chief innovation officer

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Coca-Cola European Partners announced the introduction of WestRock’s CanCollar Eco, a paperboard packaging solution for multi-pack cans in Spain. This helps Coca-Cola remove unnecessary or hard-to-recycle plastic from its portfolio and supports its vision to create a World Without Waste. Source: WestRock.

This article is sponsored by WestRock.

Even before COVID-19 brought brick-and-mortar businesses to their knees, e-commerce was on the rise. This shift to buying everything from groceries to books to medical supplies online has been in process for years. In the e-commerce world, storefronts are always open, and even in the midst of a pandemic, no mask or sanitizer is required to click. But as everything we could possibly want and need arrives at our doorsteps, we have to ask ourselves: What is the cost of our consumption? 

From Domino’s Pizza boxes to the latest paperboard ring holders around a beverage six-pack to those late-night impulse buys online that arrive boxed, you’ve likely opened a WestRock package. A leader in differentiated packaging solutions that safely delivers products to millions of customers every day, WestRock packages many essential products so important today — from toilet paper to life-saving medical supplies.

An $18 billion global packaging company, WestRock makes one in every five boxes in the United States. One of the most pressing questions facing the company every day is: How can we bring more sustainability into the packaging industry? With a three-pronged approach that incorporates innovating plastic replacements, improving the recyclability of foodservice packaging and increasing the awareness of the recyclability of those foodservice items that have gotten a bad rap (such as those pizza boxes), WestRock is gaining momentum in the race to minimize waste.

What attracted Patrick Lindner, chief innovation officer of WestRock and president of consumer packaging, to the company is its mission to innovate. For Lindner, who has a Ph.D. in chemistry, working at the helm of a company that seriously and creatively contemplates the ways in which it can shape a more sustainable world is deeply rewarding. He dedicates himself to advancing sustainable packaging to drive the circular economy. 

For WestRock and Lindner, COVID-19’s effect on advancing the e-commerce economy has accelerated the need to deliver on the promise of a more sustainable, circular future. In the "new normal," the need for greater sustainability is now. We recently discussed a range of topics, including barrier coating technology, recycling myths, the beauty of regenerative forestry, the company’s declared commitment to an equitable and green future and its perspective that the perceived challenges COVID-19 has presented — in terms of consumerism and sustainability — could be opportunities. 

Casey O’Brien: So, who is WestRock? 

Patrick Lindner: Simply put, we connect people to products through packaging — and we do it with sustainability top of mind. From corrugated delivery boxes to beauty, foodservice and all the consumer packaging areas in between, WestRock packages the products people love, and we do it in a way that drives the circular economy. 

We know that our lives, not just our livelihoods, depend on healthy forests and a healthy environment. That’s why, at WestRock, we innovate sustainable solutions with a sense of urgency. Beyond ensuring that we are caring for and renewing forests so we can continue offering a fiber-based sustainable alternative to plastic packaging, we continually look for ways to increase efficiencies and reduce our environmental impact across our company. By reimagining solutions that are right-sized, renewable and compostable, we are able to create a ripple effect of sustainability that reverberates through the companies with whom we work. 

O’Brien: How is sustainability emphasized throughout the product life cycle? 

Lindner: Everything we do, we do through the lens of sustainability. Knowing from where your resources come and that they are managed responsibly is the starting point. We purchase our virgin fiber through a responsible procurement process, ranging from the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) chain of custody systems. For our forestland in Brazil, we make sure it is certified via the Brazilian Forest Certification Program, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Cerflor, the Brazilian Standard.  

But once we have that fiber, we need to make sure we responsibly use it to its fullest potential. We use the fiber to make paper and packaging, and we use the residuals — things like chips and bark — for fuel. We also use debarked chips for biomass energy. In fact, about more than 60 percent of WestRock’s energy comes from renewable biomass energy. 

To ensure that fiber comes from healthy forests for years to come, we work with landowners to ensure that they know how to protect this precious resource. 

Then, when the packaging has successfully been used to transport, protect and deliver products to consumers, we also help ensure it is recycled. WestRock has one of North America’s largest recycling networks, which has enabled us to recover and manage 8.5 million tons of recyclables annually.

O’Brien: Talk about the intersection of COVID-19, sustainability and the global supply chain.

Lindner: Prior to COVID-19, the zero-waste movement was gathering steam with the advent of circular economy suppliers like Loop and plastic-bag bans in cities across the nation. But when it came to a pandemic, many people put aside their concerns about plastics, prioritizing safety. Today, we are seeing a renewed interest in sustainability in packaging, and the desire from many of our customers to enhance the sustainability of their packaging. We think that’s where fiber-based packaging can bridge the gap. With safety concerns about COVID-19, people are going to be using more single-use foodservice packaging, and in a climate where zero-waste is not a viable option at the moment, fiber-based alternatives can close that "all or nothing" circularity gap, providing a safe alternative that is also more sustainable. 

I’m not sure there’s ever been a time of more radical change in the markets, and in society, and packaging has arguably never been more pivotal. We’re executing a unique strategy, bringing our customers a wide range of paper-based solutions to meet their specific needs. This has positioned the company well to meet changing customer needs today and for the coming "new normal." This means not only helping them adapt to what’s happening now but also to what will happen in the long-term under the "next normal."

O’Brien: What are you doing to meet the demands of this moment and innovate?

Lindner: It is important to recognize that what worked yesterday might not work today. For instance, pre-pandemic, decades-old wisdom dictated that it was best practice to make and ship things at the last possible moment. But as the supply chain became overburdened during this global health crisis, we realized the need to shift from a "just in time" mindset to a "just in case" mindset. 

From an innovation standpoint, the pandemic forced us to look at products we had been developing in a new light. For instance, we had developed Bio-Pak Protect tamper-evident takeout containers. With fears of germs heightened as COVID-19 spread, we broadened the applicability of this container, which now provides a solution for traditionally self-serve food scenarios. Foods can be securely packed, stacked, viewed (through a window at the top of the box) and secured until the user pulls the string tab to open. 

O’Brien: How does WestRock view the circular economy changing after the crisis?

Lindner: People want the products they want — they want a takeout container that’s not plastic, but they also don’t want it to show food stains. They want a coffee to go but without guilt because the cup can’t be recycled. So we must innovate for today’s wants while looking for ways to preserve tomorrow’s world. 

While the pandemic has presented challenges, we were grateful to be in a position where we had the connections, machinery and manpower to not only pivot ourselves, but help our customers pivot to meet the shifting demands. We were able to help Tito’s Vodka deliver hand cleanser, and our Lexington, North Carolina, team turned three days’ work into one to meet the rising demands for breathing treatments and medicines. Partnerships were key — that whole stronger together thing. We also partnered with 3M on packaging for N95 Masks for healthcare workers and first responders and with Smile Direct Club on 70,000 face shields.

At WestRock, we see our role as providing reasonable sustainable alternatives to bridge the gap between where we are and where we want to be (living in a zero-waste oasis). We’ll continue leading by example, nudging our competitors and customers down a more sustainable path by creating the processes, technologies and products that that show how profitability and sustainability are inextricably linked. 

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