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Monday, December 10, 2007

Sonoco, Changing the Way Retailers Package Their Wares

By BEN WERNER - bwerner@thestate.com

Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, has a stated goal to cut the amount of packaging it uses by 5 percent by 2013.

Starting in 2008, Wal-Mart is pushing all its suppliers to operate greener, through its initiative dubbed Sustainability 360.

When announcing the program earlier in the year, chief executive Lee Scott explained what sounds like a slight decrease equals removing 213,000 trucks from the road, saving 324,000 tons of coal and 67 million gallons of diesel fuel each year.

The message was clear to manufacturing firms wanting to sell products in Wal-Mart stores — change packaging or look for other sales outlets.

“They gave a wake-up call to the consumer goods industry,” Jeff Schuetz, staff vice president of global technology for Sonoco Products Co., the Hartsville-based packaging giant.

Part of Schuetz’s job is to advise Sonoco’s customers — the companies making products sold in stores and the owners of those stores — how changing packaging can make a big difference to the environment and bottom line.

Officials from Sonoco have been helping Wal-Mart develop its Sustainability 360 initiative since 2004. Sonoco is also helping Target with its waste reduction initiative.

By stocking shelves with different packaging, companies can cut the amount of waste generated, fuel used and pollution created, Schuetz said.

“If you can make a 10 percent reduction in the amount of packaging of a very large consumer brand, that adds up,” Schuetz said.

Even traditional critics, such as The Sierra Club, which has helped communities fight the construction of new big box retailers, including Wal-Mart stores, says the Sustainability 360 initiative can make a difference.

“When Wal-Mart tells a supplier that it wants a change in packaging, that supplier will change all its packaging,” said David Willett, spokesman for The Sierra Club. “Wal-Mart has the potential to have a tremendous impact on America’s environmental footprint.”

Target’s plan includes reusing 385 million garment hangers along with recycling more than 153,000 pounds of metal from broken hangers, 2.1 million pounds of plastic, 4.3 million pounds of shrink wrap at distribution centers and 911.1 million pounds of cardboard.

Reducing packaging and recycling what packaging is used fits nicely into Sonoco’s work ethic.

“The backbone of Sonoco has been the use of old container packaging and cardboard to make cores (the tubes that hold wire, twine, tape and paper products) used around the world,” Schuetz said.

Cutting down on waste entails a lot more than just manufacturing packages out of recyclable materials — something Sonoco does a lot. The company collects Richland County's recyclables for use in its manufacturing.

Cutting waste includes creating packages that weigh less. A common problem, Schuetz said, is delivery trucks hit their weight limit before they are filled with packages.

The ability to put more packages in a truck means a retailer such as Wal-Mart needs fewer trucks to transport products.

After a year in place, Willett said Wal-Mart’s sustainability initiative is showing some signs of progress.

“Truck emissions is probably the place it has made the most gains,” Willett said.

But Sonoco offers retailers other ways to cut waste by manufacturing packages that can be stacked and act as their own display. This helps cut down on weight and waste by cutting the need to have additional paperboard displays. Packaging is still discarded, but by providing the stores with less packaging, they put less in the waste stream.

What waste is created, is then actively sought by Sonoco for reuse in the manufacture of new packaging, by collecting old packaging from recycling sites, transporting it to manufacturing plants where it is melted or shredded apart and reconstituted into new packaging.

The company collects used packaging to make either composite containers — which are formed out of a variety of materials, such as paper, metal and plastic — or cores — tubes that do everything from holding rolls of toilet paper to hold concrete forms in place at construction sites.

Not every package can be made from recycled products. Food packaging, for instance, often has requirements governing what can come in contact with food.

But such containers can usually be recycled into something else. For instance, a used plastic water bottle can be broken down and reformed into plastic used to hold nonedible products.
The difficulty, Schuetz said, comes in balancing the desire to be green with satisfying food safety requirements and consumer demands.

The Food and Drug Administration sets standards designed to prevent food coming into contact with packaging that was contaminated before being recycled. Companies such as Sonoco have to prove the recycled materials meet these standards.

“We’re not going to go back to the 1800s and wrap our meat in paper,” Schuetz said.

Still, when speaking of the packaging world’s future, Schuetz said it will only be more common for shoppers to find the products they’re buying are in recycled and recyclable containers.

“I think packaging companies are doing this because it’s the right thing to do, not because of Wal-Mart,” Schuetz said.

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