In the media

The future of packaging: Moving beyond sustainability

By Adam Peek

People of Packaging Podcast

01 February 2024

PA sustainable packaging expert and PulPac partnership lead Tony Perrotta is featured on the People of Packaging Podcast discussing the pivotal shift from sustainability to regenerative economics, the cutting-edge practices to eliminate waste, and the quest for creating a world where products and packaging leave a positive impact on the environment. 

Adam Peek: What’s a little bit of your why behind what it is that you do?

Tony: I’m first generation American. My parents are immigrants like many of us are in the US. And sustainability candidly was just proper resource allocation and management. When you do have a large family you tend to be very keen about how you go about utilizing, managing, and allocating resources, whether those be monetary, food, or just material resources. So for me sustainability was just a way of life having grown up around it and seeing it, and I’ve always been drawn to innovation. My early work at university included marketing and psychology, I had deep passion around art and finance, and realized that there was an immense opportunity for us to play a real impactful role in the future of our planet and our livelihoods. Very early on in my career I was blessed with a mentor who approached me and said ‘hey look the one piece of advice I can give you is pick a problem that is meaningful to answer in this world, and value will flow from that.’ And value means impact, and power, and mission-driven purpose. And it also means all the other amazing things that we all want from this world as well. So that’s the very early origin story.

The path here was pretty unique for me. I spent a lot of time helping consumer and manufacturing and health and life sciences companies learn how to market their products better, helped them communicate the benefit to consumers, and realized along that path that the notion of sustainability was continuing to grow and that I could really pick a part to play there. I’m of the opinion that sustainability at this point is an outdated statement, hence a little bit in my bio that talks about the regenerative economy. I think most folks in an around the spheres that we work in would agree that what we’re seeing play out on the global scale is nothing sustainable at all. None of us are interested in sustaining the current way we go to market. We’re seeing a lot of changes in the needs related to resource allocation, climate change, etc. the notion of a regenerative economy is one where you seek to do little, less, or no damage, but how might your presence in the world bring a regenerative or beneficial impact? Easy to say, not so easy to do. But that is my mission and purpose. To help clients, brands, organizations, governments, and individuals go beyond net zero to this notion of a regenerative economy.

Adam: How the word sustainability has not been sufficient into what we want to accomplish.

Tony: The notion and terminology of sustainability may not be enough to reflect what our true needs are. And the notion of regenerative economy is to do less or no damage. How might companies, brands, organizations and individuals actually go to a place where their presence and involvement in the economy brings a net regenerative impact, and actually provides that beneficial impact that we need to see in this world. I’ll give your audience a background on PA Consulting, but before I joined this amazing consulting firm I ran sales for a company called Plastic Bank. Really disruptive business model, in essense we invited poor communities around the world to exchange plastic garbage for necessities like food, WiFi, and school tuition. As amazingly inspiring as that work is, I realized that we weren’t actually addressing the net origin of that problem, and that’s the creation of plastic, especially single-use plastic, in an of itself. Hence by providence a friend introduced me to PA Consulting and said ‘hey these folks are doing amazing work in the field of material science. They are trying to tackle very complex, hairy problems. It might be worth your consideration to take a look at that work and see if you can amplify and bring some unique skill sets there.’ And so I did.

Very quick background on PA Consulting. We’re a consulting firm with an 80-year legacy of bringing ingenuity to life. Yes we do the critical strategy work to grow businesses, but we also get dirt under our finger nails. We help clients go from pixels to particles if you will, from the mind to materials. What does that look like? Our first client we like to say was Winston Churchill at the turn of the second world war, helping with personnel and resource allocation. We’ve done amazing things like build the world’s first pregnancy test, we designed the Nike Fuelband, and helped harness the power of seaweed for packaging for the team at Notpla. We’re the only consulting firm with design, engineering and science housed in studios around the world. Truly tackling complex, systems-based problems, that’s our superpower if you will. My remit at the firm is sustainability and really bringing that power of regenerative economy to bear. What that looks like in my day-to-day is I lead our proposition around dry-molded fiber. It is a technology owned by a company called PulPac, a separate entity. Our goal in our partnership with them is to help commercialize their technology for the amazing needs of health and life sciences and consumer goods companies.

Adam: What is the difference between sustainability and regenerative economy, and why do you think we need to make a pivot?

Tony: In its most basic form, sustainability denotes this notion that we can go ahead and our hope is to sustain the existing status quo. I think for anyone who understands that definition, none of us are interested in doing that. None of us are interested in sustaining the status quo in a number of places, whether that be waste, plastic pollution in our oceans, injection into our bodies, climate change, etc. the obverse of this is the notion of minimizing and hopefully eliminating the negative implications of our activity, but is there a place where my activity can bring a beneficial impact.

I’ll offer one example. again very easy notions to say, much much harder to do. Hence why PA Consulting has a value in this world. Microsoft, we’re unaffiliated with them, came out with a very aggressive water policy. Their water footprint policy states how might Microsoft return more clean potable water into the world than we actually use. So the net balance there means that the very existence of Microsoft brings a beneficial impact to the world’s water systems. If you can take that notion across multiple industries, you can see how the stacking of these impacts can truly create change that goes beyond sustainability. These are large, complex systems-based challenges. They often take collaboration in very really radical and disruptive ways. We really are living in a time where you have to look beyond the not invented here mentality. At PA Consulting, in partnership with PulPac, we are beginning to do that. You reference the two collectives that we’re offering (Bottle Collective and Blister Pack Collective), those are prime examples of collaboration on a new, radical level.

Adam: You have some friends in the regenerative world, and one of these friends is PulPac and what it is that they’re doing. So let’s get into the Bottle Collective and the Blister Pack Collective. Tell us about these two collectives.

Tony: Quick bit of background. Dry molded fiber as the name implies is a dry process that under heat and pressure makes use of typically plants based fiber to create packaging and in some cases product that can be used as a replacement for single-use plastics. The benefits of a dry molded fiber are very clear. One, since it is a dry process that means less water. Bu the use of less water, in an of itself a benefit, also means less energy is used because then you are not drying out water that was never used in the process in the first place. Those two benefits drive two very key levers. A) Higher sustainability profile due to lower water use, lower energy use, amazing things. B) equally important is that also drives the cost and the cycle time down, so this process becomes an economical, truly scalable way to replace single-use plastics at the volumes, speeds, and economics that we all expect.

Adam: I was in a wet molded fiber factory once in southern China, and that process is not great. It’s hard to watch honestly. It was pretty slow, there was a lot of waste water created. It’s not like wet molded fiber is a sure fire way forward, and that’s what got me excited about PulPac.

Tony: That’s the basic tenant that we’ve taken to the market. And as a packaging specialist or designer, there are things you can do in dry molded fiber that you can’t do in other alternatives. The final finish is unbelievably similar and high value to a consumer, often times we’ve got consumers holding these PulPac products and they can’t distinguish them from a typical plastic. There’s amazing décor capabilities, embossing debossing and in-mold labeling. We can definitely get into the specifics. One step higher than that we began talking about the world of radical collaboration and you mentioned our work in the bottle and blister collectives.

We realized in our partnership with PulPac in engaging with amazing consumer product companies around the world that there are a handful of challenges too large for a single entity tackle on their own. The reality is that problems are systems-based, and complex, and likely cant’ be tackled by a single brand. So our intention there is to identify how we can bring a collective of organizations together in service of a single mission. So we’ve identified how might we replace single-use plastic bottles using the collective approach, and how might we replace what are typically PVC based tablet blister cards as well. We’re not the first to come up with this notion of a collective, what makes our collective different in partnership with PulPac is you’ve got PA siting at the center with this 80-year legacy of deep scientific rigor, discipline, and complex project management, driving this mission forward. In addition you’ve got the amazing ingenuity of PulPac driving the baseline technology. And then we have on the outer layer surrounded by amazing brands who are bringing their own research and capabilities, and often time seeing beyond the competitive lines that have typically been drawn.

On the bottle collective, the three companies that have joined to date (who are making themselves publicly known) include Haleon, Sanofi, and Diagio. Haleon and Sanofi typically competitors, in the competitive set, yet here they are collaborating, in our ‘collaboratory’ to find a way and search for an alternative to single-use plastic bottles and doing so in real terms. Work shopping together, looking at the science of new materials at the process flow, and sharing insights. We all know these companies have looked into packaging alternatives for years now, they’ve just been doing it in their own silos.

Beyond that, similar dynamics in the Blister Pack Collective. Haleon have joined us there as has Bayer. Bayer has joined to say ‘hey look, the current materials we are using (PVC) have amazing properties, but at the same time are difficult to recycle, have end of life challenges, and are hard to collect. What might alternatives be here, especially in a product formulation that really brings unique benefits to a consumer.’ Compliance of medication in a blister pack is extraordinarily high because you can see which tablet you’ve taken, have you missed a dose, etc. so again the hope and mission here is not to make this a landscape of trade offs, but to really bring all the benefits to bear in a way that is economical, feasible, and still delights the consumer.

Tony continues: Our hope, and by design if you will, of the collectives is that we can tackle the needs of multiple industries. So yes our work with Diagio will focus on liquids, our work with Haleon and Sanofi will focus on tablets and capsules and solids. We expect to work with fabric care and laundry around powders and other chemical compositions. In the world of blister packs, of course we want to work with over-the-counter consumer health. We see massive value for pharmaceuticals. The world of confectionery now comes in a packaging format like that. We work with all these individuals and multiple stakeholders in an organization. It’s amazing to engage with the brand manager, equally it’s unbelievably enlightening to sit with designers and R&D specialists. Of course we will engage with chief sustainability or chief climate officers. We really welcome like minded companies and brands that are looking to join a journey that’s not in its infancy, that has made amazing progress, but still is not as deeply entrenched as 60 year legacy of injection molding.

Listen to Tony's full podcast interview with host Adam Peek

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