Wrapping Products in Sustainability

Sonoco
Written by Robert Hoshowsky

For some companies, ‘sustainability’ is little more than a buzzword. For Sonoco, sustainable packaging, programs and services are integral to every part of the business, including packaging design, sourcing and end-of-life.

At Sonoco, sustainability is a team effort. As one of the world’s foremost packaging and container manufacturers, Sonoco’s commitment to sustainability is about much more than packaging.

Reducing Scope 1 and 2 emissions by at least 25 percent by 2030, lowering water consumption, incorporating solar power and purchasing renewable energy in its operations are key initiatives to Sonoco living up to its motto: Better Packaging. Better Life.

Born into responsibility
Sonoco has been serious about sustainability since the company’s early days.

In 1899, a small team of 12 worked in a rented warehouse in Hartsville, South Carolina on the then-named Southern Novelty Company’s first product—a cone-shaped paper yarn carrier used for winding and transporting yarn. Renamed the Sonoco Products Company in 1923, the respected business today has over 300 operations globally, an expanded product line, and about 22,000 employees. Today, the company serves some of the world’s best-known brands with consumer, industrial and diversified packaging.

Sonoco serves the needs of diverse markets including food and powdered beverages, beauty and personal care, health care, household, construction, electronics and appliances, and textiles. Almost 125 years later, Sonoco remains committed to planet- and people-first packaging.

“Over the last decade, everyone has become more concerned about sustainability, especially global warming, but you can look back 20, 30, 40 or even 50 years, and Sonoco was engaged in that space,” says Ed Harrington, Director, Global Environmental.

At Sonoco, no sustainability initiative is too small, and all are focused on the greater good of the planet. This includes ensuring water used in the manufacturing process is treated to meet local standards and using recycled paper and packaging. “I think the biggest change over the last decade has been an increased urgency and activity around reducing greenhouse gas emissions to help with climate change,” says Harrington.

Using 2020 as its baseline, Sonoco has many such commitments through 2030. These include reducing energy use by at least eight percent in its manufacturing plants, recycling or causing to recycle 85 percent equivalent by weight of the products the company puts into the marketplace, reducing Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions, conducting water risk studies and numerous others. (Learn more about Sonoco’s science-based sustainability targets at https://www.sonoco.com/na/sustainability.)

Responsibility goes global
Over the years, Sonoco has established itself as a leader in the global packaging industry. Building on its many strengths, Sonoco brought its environmental and sustainability teams together as one. With the current team’s 22 members, the company continues its focus on the environmental aspects of sustainability and is active in compliance, permitting and executing its global responsibilities.

“We believe in approaching sustainability ethically and holistically,” says Sonoco on its website. “That’s why we build sustainability into every area of our business and choose to explain our practices in terms of circularity.” Starting with leadership, the sustainability circle encompasses design, sourcing, production, supply chain and end-of-life.

Sonoco’s Director of Global Sustainability Services, Scott Byrne, explains that it is important to put the packaging industry in its proper context: “We don’t make packaging as a product. Packaging exists to serve a purpose for brand owners, for our customers. So the packaging that we make for the food and beverage industry exists to protect a food product, to keep it fresh, and extend the shelf life.”

Some packaging, such as Sonoco’s ThermoSafe®, includes valuable cold chain solutions like solid shipping boxes, foam bricks and gel packs. Used by clients in health care, life sciences and other key sectors, ThermoSafe assures the safe and effective transportation of temperature-sensitive products such as pharmaceuticals and vaccines over long distances.

Packaging put into perspective
“The packaging industry enables what we take for granted in the modern world,” says Byrne. “I think that context is sometimes lost, and people look at packaging in a vacuum.”

A misconception he sometimes hears is that the packaging industry, packaging converters, brand owners, and the recycling industry and markets don’t talk to each other and that packaging is simply put on the market with little understanding of the impact on the recycling value chain. For companies like Sonoco this, Byrne says, couldn’t be further from the truth.

“Sonoco is an excellent example of where we are as a packaging converter and as a recycler,” he says. “We have five material recovery facilities in the Southeast that collect residential recycling, and we have paper mills. We get that product from recycling facilities and use the recycled content, so we very much understand the impact of the packaging we put on the market.”

Working hard throughout the value chain, Sonoco gauges the impact of making changes to its fiber-based packages, how that interacts with MRFs (materials recovery facilities) and the impact on its paper mills.

Another misconception—one which is almost universal—is that recyclability is the be-all and end-all of sustainability attributes for packaging. Byrne says there are many other attributes to consider, such as using renewable materials, the ability of packaging to protect product or extend shelf life, and the overall carbon footprint.

“We talk about global warming,” he says. “That’s one of the biggest challenges facing the world, and recyclability is part of that, but usually end-of-life is a much smaller piece of the package’s total carbon footprint compared to things like the type of materials used, the amount of materials, transportation, logistics and conversion. Sometimes I think people get a little bit too caught up in end-of-life.”

Sustaining a future
From all-paper blister packaging to pouches, wraps, paperboard packaging and other forms, Sonoco is committed to “Packaging With Tomorrow in Mind™.” Through lines such as EnviroSense® (a four-time award winner), EnviroFlex®, and EnviroCan™, Sonoco is changing the face of packaging and sustainability. These revolutionary products provide customers with environmentally friendly alternatives.

Some, like PaperBlister™, are plastic-free and fully recyclable options for traditional blister packaging. Others, such as EnviroCan, are paperboard containers made from recycled and recyclable materials. And EnviroFlex is a line of sustainable, flexible packaging solutions “focused on recyclability and the use of post-consumer recycled content.”

Other packaging, like Sonopost®, provides sustainable ways to protect white goods like dishwashers and refrigerators from damage while reducing EPS (expanded polystyrene) and plastic packaging. In late 2022, the company announced a new protective packaging facility in Bursa, Turkey, just a year after the first Sonopost operation was established in Sochaczew, Poland.

“Growing demand for our proprietary Sonopost technology created the need for a second production facility,” said Adam Wood, Vice President and General Manager of Global Paper Products in Europe in a media release. “Our protective packaging design team is working hard with our customers who are aligned with us in creating fully sustainable, paper-based packaging that protects and preserves both their product and our planet for generations to come.”

Sonoco continues to introduce new and exciting products that further its commitment to the future of the planet. From mono-material polyethylene to paper-based structures for flexible packaging and PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) clamshells with wash-off label adhesive, (making them easier to recycle), the company continuously reaffirms its status as a visionary in the industry. Along with reducing scrap at its production facilities, Sonoco is committed to clean, renewable sources of energy, including solar, and is working on significant power purchase agreements in the United States and Europe, which will likely include solar and wind.

For a better life
“At Sonoco, we believe in ‘Better Packaging. Better Life.’ and with that comes our prioritization of safety,” says Cassandra Snelling, Marketing Manager, Global Sustainability.

“There is a correlation between sustainability and safety. After we complete any updates at our facilities—whether that be LED lighting or solar panels installed—we do surveys. And surveys have found, in the case of LED lighting installations, employees report feeling safer and happier in their workplace. There’s a correlation between doing the right thing and employee satisfaction.”

Such an approach dovetails with Sonoco’s belief that “we have an inherent responsibility to help improve the quality of life in the communities in which we serve,” says Snelling. The Sonoco Foundation, Sonoco’s philanthropic arm founded nearly 40 years ago, donates millions each year to non-profit organizations across the globe. The company’s employees also contribute time, funds, and talents to a multitude of worthy causes, including volunteering, serving on boards, raising funds and participating in other civic-oriented projects.

“People build businesses by doing the right thing,” concludes Snelling. At Sonoco, that practice looks like helping customers meet their sustainability goals and volume needs—leading the way in innovation and planet-friendly packaging and implementing world-class safety companywide.

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