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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
3 Takeaways from Our Ongoing Journey to ‘Innovate Boldly. Package Sustainably.’

We’re constantly exploring ways to achieve the functional benefits of plastic with fiber-based packaging alternatives, so that no one walking down a grocery store aisle must choose between function and sustainability.

There is no seedbed for packaging innovation quite like the grocery store. When I walk down the aisle at my local Kroger, my eyes are always drawn to the rows upon rows of food and how it's packaged. Even now, in 2024, after so many sustainability initiatives, I'm constantly surprised by how much of it sits behind a layer of single-use plastic that will soon find its way to a landfill. The thought is concerning, but it’s also motivating and inspiring. It spawns questions such as Do these packages need to be plastic? How many could be fiber-based without losing any of their functionality?

Answering questions like these lies at the heart of innovation here at WestRock. It's what drives every step of our process — from initial experiments in our state-of-the-art Innovation and Design Center to a new product's launch and implementation. Our company's purpose statement begins with the mandate to "Innovate Boldly;" and when I started my job as the Chief Innovation and Science Officer, I knew I was joining a team of people who were doing just that: passionate innovators who were motivated to solve critical problems and willing to push the boundaries of what's possible — all with the goal of creating a more sustainable, fiber-based future.

Through packaging innovation, we aim to create fiber-based alternatives so that no one walking down a grocery store aisle must choose between function and sustainability. We’re constantly asking ourselves how we can make paper stronger, last longer and do more — exploring ways to achieve the functional benefits of plastic without sacrificing the renewable attributes of paper.

Approaching innovation through a multi-faceted lens

When we think about what innovation means, the first thing that usually comes to mind is new products. And while that's certainly a critical piece of the puzzle, true innovation happens when we push the limits and think boldly about every level of the packaging process. This includes materials science — working with the fiber itself and manipulating it to extend its functionality; digital innovation — embedding data and intelligence into packaging to solve key customer problems; design innovation — rethinking and experimenting with packaging design; and automation innovation — building machines that drive efficiency and increase sustainability. All four pillars are critical to our success; and the real magic happens at the integration of these capabilities, where we can create truly innovative solutions that tackle a problem from every angle.

For example, we’re constantly exploring ways to utilize the powerful attributes of different types of wood fiber. Through proprietary methods, we combine the strength of softwood fibers and the printability and smoothness of hardwood fibers to create products that are durable and attractive, and that use the fewest materials possible without compromising quality. But our job doesn’t end when a product makes its way to a store shelf. We’re always designing with a product’s post-consumer life in mind — engineering the ability to recycle, recover and reintegrate this material back into the packaging cycle. That’s a different kind of innovation than creating a new product; but it still represents what’s possible at the intersection of our materials science, design and automation capabilities.

Another consideration we always keep in mind is the importance of pace and acceleration — the ability to move ideas quickly through our pipeline so that we can be reactive and solve pressing industry problems and customer needs. We're proud to have team members across the world; and we work together to create solutions that are effective globally. For example, our Tczew, Poland facility embraced innovation to scale up capacity (and capability) to produce EcoPush® — a push-up tube made with paperboard that can help customers in the region achieve plastic-replacement or -reduction goals.

Innovation and its connection to sustainability and circularity

Sustainability is at the center of our mission. In fact, that “Innovate Boldly” in our company’s purpose statement is immediately followed by “Package Sustainably.” As we strive to create innovative solutions for our customers’ greatest challenges, sustainability is always part of the equation; and with sustainability comes a focus on circularity. Fiber-based packaging is made from trees — a recyclable and renewable resource. Given the need to reduce waste and reliance on virgin fiber globally, we’re driven to center much of our work on how we can return fiber to the supply chain.

One of WestRock’s sustainability targets is that 100 percent of our products will be recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025. As of 2022, that number was 97.8 percent — and we’re working to close what remains of that gap and to solve problems in the most sustainable way possible.

Our commitment to circularity goes all the way back to responsible forestry, which is why we’re committed to supporting the certification of 1.5 million acres (about twice the area of Yosemite National Park) of forestland to recognized forest-management standards.

Ultimately, our goal is to create solutions for our customers that allow them to offer more sustainable outcomes for their customers.

Bringing the theoretical to life

Innovations occur every single day — in our labs, yes; but also in our operational facilities, mills and converting sites — and it’s exciting when that work takes shape to produce real-world results.

We have so many exciting products in the pipeline, including tangible solutions that you may be able to spot on that next trip down the grocery store aisle. This includes CanCollar®, a fiber-based alternative to single-use plastic six rings for beverages — a pragmatic solution to a real problem faced by our customers and their customers.

We’re also always working to develop fiber-based containers that are microwaveable or oven-safe, and are durable enough to stand up to real-life tests. This year, we launched products including WetTech® — a recyclable, fiber-based packaging that is moisture-resistant, and ideal for protein and produce; and EnduraGrip™ — an alternative to plastic clips and shrink wrap used in multi-packs found in big-box retail stores, which was recently named Innovation of the Year at the 80th Annual North American Paper and Packaging Board Competition.

Looking ahead

Innovation is one of our strongest tools in the fight for a more sustainable future; and while those walks around the grocery store once represented uncharted territory, they now excite me — because we’re exploring them. Every day, I see more fiber-based packages on the shelves than I did the last time and more fiber-based solutions to critical sustainability challenges are hitting the market. The world looks a little brighter in light of these innovations; and with WestRock's capabilities, passion and our drive to solve problems, we're poised to tackle even the biggest challenges.