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Image: MSU School of Packaging
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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
more than any generation before them, and many are pursuing careers aligned with
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.”
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.”
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.
“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
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.
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
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.
Published Nov 11, 2022 7am EST / 4am PST / 12pm GMT / 1pm CET
This article, produced in cooperation with the Sustainable Brands editorial team, has been paid for by one of our sponsors.
Everyone has a role to play in creating a more sustainable world: Dow is taking action to address the full scale of challenges, collaborating with partners to improve the industry’s processes and through innovation to help communities become more sustainable.