Through materials innovation and technology advances, the packaging industry can be a critical component in working toward a world without waste and a truly closed-loop, circular economy.
In early 2019, Highland Brewing — a family-owned craft brewery in Asheville, NC — faced a dilemma: The plastic packaging it used to bind its beers was no longer accepted at many recycling facilities. To meet the expectations of its environmentally conscious and outdoors-oriented local customer base, the company needed to find a new solution.
This wasn’t the only problem Highland Brewing was trying to solve. At the time, the company was also looking for ways to reduce plastic use overall within its facility, as well as increase efficiency in operations to be more cost-effective and conserve resources.
Plastic waste and resource conservation are growing issues globally. As a sustainability-focused packaging solutions provider, WestRock has many customers — including Highland Brewing — that are looking for ways to phase out less sustainable materials in their packaging and reduce emissions in their operations without sacrificing productivity.
It might seem like a tall order, but one solution to all these challenges is actually quite simple: automation.
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Automation isn’t a novel concept — corporations have been capitalizing on the efficiency that automated machinery offers for years. However, the solutions coming to market today have vast sustainability benefits for both companies and their consumers. They enable optimal use of labor, materials and resources for packaging, which in turn reduce waste and cost. As one of the only providers of both packaging and automation, the value proposition is heightened by addressing sustainability and efficiency at both ends of the spectrum.
Between April 2019 and May 2021, Highland Brewing saved 1.3 million plastic wraps with the introduction of both paperboard packaging and automation, equating to 63,000 pounds of plastic kept out of the waste stream.
Many of our customers, as a first step, are examining fiber as a more sustainable packaging option. And there’s good reason for that. According to a survey conducted by Consumer Brands/Ipsos in July 2021, 84 percent of US shoppers are concerned about plastic and packaging waste. Highland Brewing was experiencing the direct impact of this concern from its customer base.
The adoption of fiber-based, sustainably sourced materials can help companies achieve their environmental goals and meet new consumer expectations. It also helps them avoid their packaging becoming branded trash — which is a disservice to the reputation of a brand and its products, and distasteful to those who run into it on the street or in nature. By using fiber-based materials, companies give their customers the agency to bypass the waste bin for the blue bin.
To make this shift, companies can begin with small swaps — such as choosing fiber-based packaging one product or system at a time. In Highland’s case, we first worked with them to replace their 12-oz can plastic packaging with paperboard cartons, making it one of the first breweries in North Carolina to implement the use of paperboard. This swap, aided by an automated system, made its packaging process easier and more resource efficient.
Small things should come in small packages ...
... But in practice, this isn’t always the case. When products are mismatched for their boxes, ecommerce companies waste resources and consumers get frustrated. Further, these oversized packages take up unnecessary space in transport, leading to higher shipping costs and increased emissions.
This doesn’t need to be the reality. Recent advances in packaging automation have yielded solutions that help manufacturers and distributors select the right sized box for every product, every time. The operational efficiency of these machines, coupled with the reduced weight and size of the packaged products, make for a cost-effective, more sustainable solution to customers’ packaging challenges.
Optimization for efficiency means fewer emissions & wasted materials
Automation also has the benefit of allowing companies to optimize the resources used during production, helping reduce total electricity, water and material usage. Because improved efficiency was also one of Highland Brewing’s packaging goals, we worked with them to implement a high-speed Brewpack cartoner produced by WestRock and Switchback. The efficiencies found with the new system extended beyond operational productivity.
"We’re now saving a lot of time in operation, which reduces water usage and CO2 emissions,” said Highland President and CEO Leah Wong Ashburn. “By adding the system to our lines, we’ve also been able to reduce our material waste."
These solutions also make a tangible difference for customers seeking to maximize efficiencies in their lines. Combined processing systems make it possible to produce more sustainable packaging alternatives faster through streamlining, tackling a multi-step or multi-machine process all at once. The efficiencies gained can translate into reduced emissions and overall cost reductions through material and labor savings.
We all have a part to play in creating a more sustainable future. Through product innovation and technology advances, the packaging industry can be a critical component in working toward a world without waste and a truly circular economy. By leveraging automated systems, we can streamline and expedite our efforts.
“Back in 2019, we had three dumpsters and one recycling bin,” Ashburn says. “Now, we have three recycling bins and one dumpster.”