Recognizing the value of education both as a strategic initiative for preparing future brand employees and as an opportunity to help shape a more sustainable value chain.
Gen Z cares about sustainability more than any generation before them, and many are pursuing careers aligned with solving environmental issues. Plastics and packaging programs at universities across the country must equip these young minds with the knowledge and skills they need to build a more circular future, and Dow aims to help in this endeavor.
“In working on education initiatives at Dow, I’ve seen that every undergrad and graduate student is talking about sustainability,” said Jill Martin, Global Sustainability Fellow at Dow. “We can offer our expertise in the space to fill a gap, bringing a different and innovative perspective into packaging and sustainability education. And Dow learns from students, too, as they bring open minds and new ways of thinking to the table.”
Driving toward plastics education in packaging
Early on in its engagement with packaging schools, the chemical and materials giant noticed that as materials for packaging were evolving and plastics were becoming increasingly important, a disconnect was growing between university curricula and the reality of the industry. Students weren’t always learning about plastic packaging, specifically — which set them behind before they even started working in the industry. Students would likely move on to work for consumer packaged goods (CPG) brands lacking important knowledge, such as the type of plastics used in flexible and rigid packaging and how these materials enabled down-gauging and light-weighting.
In this gap, Dow saw an opportunity to help position students to better understand the value of plastic packaging and extend their thinking beyond traditional packaging materials when they enter the field — whether in CPG companies, testing labs, packaging suppliers or elsewhere along the value chain. Armed with skills and knowledge around plastics, these students can now go on to develop innovative solutions for circularity across package material types and formats throughout the industry.
“We always talk about speaking and understanding the language of brands,” Martin said. “But by educating brands’ future employees about materials, we can help brands better speak the language of materials, too. Having this common language helps us connect to partners and move faster with opportunities.”
University partnerships in action
Dow’s partnerships with packaging schools take shape in many ways — including sponsorship and funding for symposia, providing industry expertise to help shape curricula, offering hands-on opportunities for students and more. However the company contributes, the goal is always to give students the opportunity to get close to the market with innovative solutions. For example, it recently supported Michigan State University (MSU) in hiring a sustainability-focused faculty member to educate students about circular solutions.
Matt Daum, director of the School of Packaging and assistant dean for corporate relations and strategy at MSU, decided with his team about two years ago that they would double down on the topic of sustainability in their program.
“With such a large influence in the packaging industry,” Daum said, “we have a real sense of obligation and duty to make sure we get it right.” MSU has the oldest and largest higher-education packaging program with close to 600 students, and the only PhD program in packaging. It graduates about 40 percent of all packaging engineers into the industry every year.
Aiming to add resources to drive sustainability through all curricula, the School of Packaging sought a staff member who could focus on flexible packaging and end-of-life solutions. Teaming up with corporate relations and strategy at the university, Daum knew the importance of bringing industry experts to the table to help shape and support this role.
The vital role of industry in packaging education
“Packaging is a very applied-type science. It’s very practical. You have to stay in touch with industry trends and needs, technology advancements and other innovation if you want your curriculum and training to be relevant,” he said.
Daum saw the benefit of creating the new role in partnership with packaging companies. The partners would fund “startup” dollars — including travel, relocation, setting up labs and hiring graduate students — and the university would cover base salary and benefits. Dow and Pregis Corporation partnered with the university under this new approach to fund the sustainability-focused staff member. Along with funding, the two companies lent industry expertise to ensure the role was designed to provide the most relevant training and value for students based on the current and future state of the industry.
“It’s a great example of showing why universities cannot go it alone,” Daum said. “We must partner with industry to provide students with a real-world understanding of the problems that matter and produce graduates that will solve them. And if you don’t do it that way, if you rely instead on outdated curriculum and equipment, students will always be behind. To me, partnering with industry is imperative.”
Dow also has a longstanding partnership with Cal Poly’s packaging program to provide similar guidance and input. Since 2011, Dow has contributed to the program in various ways, including recruiting students for summer internships and providing students with opportunities at venues such as Pack Expo. Dow employees have also given guest lectures at several Cal Poly student-hosted symposiums and serve as members of the Cal Poly packaging research consortium focused on distribution packaging.
Koushik Saha, a professor of industrial technology and packaging at Cal Poly, believes the partnership is critical for students’ education.
“Being in academia, our knowledge base is often primarily from books, articles and conferences,” he said. “So, when we interact with scientists who are working on the research and development space of companies like Dow, we can peek into developments that are in the pipeline and have yet to hit. We can tailor our lecture content so that by the time these new advancements come into the market, students already understand them and their application.”
Saha finds Dow’s sustainability focus particularly critical to his students. “Looking back ten or so years, I realize that instructors then were not very focused on the environmental side of packaging. It was usually just a footnote,” he said. “Now, corporations are being pushed to take more responsibility and reduce negative impact. I’ve started teaching my courses with the perspective that material choices are not just to be made based on convenience or extending shelf life. These decisions must also take the circular economy into account in all aspects; and Dow applies this philosophy.”
Kyle Dunno at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) shares this sentiment. Currently an assistant professor in the packaging science department, Dunno switched from industry work to academia when he realized how many research gaps persisted in the world of packaging. The research he’s now involved in at RIT highlights those questions to support better decisions around sustainable packaging and what that ultimately means for different industries.
“Packaging science is unlike a lot of other disciplines in how tethered it is to the industry,” he said. “To graduate students who will be successful in their careers, we must understand what challenges the industry is facing; and sustainability is one that has been growing fast. What we teach students about sustainable packaging now will determine if they’re able to make impactful changes in the industry later.”
Dow and RIT have partnered on various initiatives over the past few years — most recently on a research project to evaluate stretch film and its application to unit load systems. Dunno recognized a lack of understanding regarding stretch film and its dynamic role in securing products through the supply chain, and the packaging industry currently lacks the necessary technology to create more reliable and sustainable stretch film.
Dow is providing funding and sponsorship for RIT to research, develop, formulate and engineer solutions that will provide consumer savings and product protection throughout the supply chain. The research is one of the first of its kind to focus on unit load stability and reducing damage and product loss.
Scaling impact on the future of sustainability
For Dow, focusing on packaging education is both a strategic initiative and a chance to shape a more sustainable value chain of the future. Dow can get innovative materials and sustainability knowledge into the hands of students who are already excited about sustainability; and when these students go on to work at CPG brands or other employers along the value chain, they’ll bring with them the awareness of and excitement for alternative, sustainable packaging materials.
Considering that these partnerships are taking shape with some of the top packaging-science programs in the world, Dow is significantly expanding its impact and advancing toward climate and circularity goals by influencing the future of packaging at scale.
To learn more about the materials and technologies students are studying and the newest polymer developments from Dow and its partners, visit Dow’s Polymers with Purpose website.