Plastic Packaging: The Innocent Monster

Emmerson Packaging

9. Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure 12. Responsible Consumption and Production 13. Climate Action

Overview

Emmerson Packaging is taking the initiative to try and create better forms of sustainable packaging that can be used for food that is thin as it can be, and yet still have all the optimal properties all while being more recyclable or recycle ready or biodegradable. As Dawn MacDonald points out, “A big part of what we have been over the last 10 years is taking conventional packaging, and making it a recyclable or a recyclable ready package version.”

Authors

Ian McKee

Ian McKee

Alex Levy

Alex Levy

Amir Garamian

Amir Garamian

Ross Kelleher

Ross Kelleher

School

Dalhousie University

Dalhousie University

Professors

Kent Williams

Kent Williams

Emma Malensek

Emma Malensek

Innovation

Emmerson Packaging innovates its packaging in ways such as post-consumer recycling, made from recycled products, rice packaging, and soon to go commercial with popcorn kernel packaging or packaging that is biodegradable in a landfill as it can break down in ten years if there is methane. Plastic bags were ending up in landfills regardless of whether they were recyclable or not so they aimed to design a bag that was meant to end up in a landfill and biodegrade there if there was methane gas that was being produced.

Another key aspect of Emmerson Packaging’s innovation is aiming to make packaging that is more efficient to run on customer lines. This means that they are trying to help their clients by creating packaging for them that can be put out in higher quantities in the exact same amount of time and energy compared to their current procedure by aiming to make the packaging they use thinner. However, one downside of thinner packaging is even though it is just as strong as a thicker one, it can feel cheap to the touch which to some can be a worry. But they work hard to ensure that the thinner packaging is just as strong as the thicker ones.

But how has such a major way to redesign bags come to be? Well, one of the main reasons is due to the way people in the last few years have started to view plastic bags. “Plastic has been demonized and packaging has been made into this evil character,” as Dawn MacDonald puts it. Despite how plastic packaging is viewed, it is actually a very well-engineered and designed form of packaging. Even more so with what they are trying to do by making packaging that is more recyclable, or recycle-ready packaging or ones that can biodegrade. It also has come about due to their customers asking for more specific packaging to their needs and wants, and being able to create bags that can fit them. Another main reason for the innovation of packaging is how people and places are starting to move towards using paper to target a consumer view, as it seems to be more environmentally friendly. Sadly, the complete opposite is true. Paper baggage actually is much worse than plastic bags as they take way more energy and resources, trees, to be put into them. The only positive that paper bags have over plastic is the fact that they are biodegradable, other than that they are outperformed by plastic bags.

All of this innovation that is being looked into is thanks to four individuals, Dawn MacDonald, Floyd Gagnon, Alex Peters, and Brooke Embre, who work in the R&D (Research and Development) department at Emmerson Packaging. Dawn is the manager of the R&D department, therefore, she oversees what happens. Floyd used to be an extrusion manager for 25 years and has now moved to work in the R&D department, and knows films so well that he can take what a customer wants, and modify the blend of plastics that they make to get it to meet their expectations. Finally, Alex and Brook are both packaging technicians which is where they analyse the film and take it to a lab and do physical tests on it and quantify its properties and try to figure out what needs to change to make the package more recyclable or stiffer, thinner, lighter, clearer and so on. Once they have figured out what formula works best for what it is they are trying to accomplish for the customer, they create it and send it to the customer and see if it fits their expectations.

This packaging innovation relates strongly to a sense of mission which is to try and create better forms of packaging that can be recyclable, or biodegradable, but yet still be just as effective and cost the same if not less than their counterparts. This can be seen in all the different varieties of packaging they make, but also how they always take their customers' feedback and tailor the packaging to better fit what they need. It also relates to a sense of meaning as they all love what they are doing and the great benefits that come from producing packaging that is taking a step forward in the way that we package our food.


Plastic Packaging: The Innocent Monster

Inspiration

Speaking with Dawn MacDonald and Alex Peters from the R&D department at Emmerson Packaging was truly inspiring. There are so many people that fail to find their passion through their work. This is not the case for either Dawn or Alex. They are truly passionate about plastic and the dynamic package industry.

The inspiration behind Emmerson Packaging is to make packaging more sustainable and change the way people view packaging. Dawn MacDonald brought us back to a time when plastic was introduced. Plastic truly changed the packaging game as it made things easier to ship products worldwide. Emmerson Packaging, however, has made an effort to consistently reshape this industry. Dawn MacDonald highlighted how consumers have demonized plastic and almost boycotted plastic because of the environmental effects when it is not recycled properly. Emmerson Packaging is inspired to teach and educate the consumer on how to recycle properly and what different recycling symbols mean. Their packages are as thin and light as possible in order to promote the sustainable future they are so inspired to carry out. This plastic packaging is highly engineered to be efficient and reusable. This is tremendously important to think about because nowadays, consumers care about how companies feel about sustainability. Sustainability is deeply rooted in Emerson Packaging’s core, as Dawn MacDonald stated, “The company was green before it was cool to be green.”

Now you may be wondering, who could be excited about a package? Typically, consumers are more thrilled about the context of a package than the package itself. Dawn Macdonald is an employee who is passionate about packaging and demonstrated her inspiration through a unique example of how important packaging can be. She explained how Emmerson Packaging creates packaging for dog food and part of this process is a palate test. Essentially, this test consists of ten dogs who are presented with food arriving in their packaging and food from another company’s packaging. They examine how many grams from each package the dogs eat and ideally you would want to see the majority of dogs eating from your packaging. The test resulted in every single dog avoiding Emmerson Packaging’s food. Initially, the company was shocked by the outcome but after further examination, they concluded that their package contained one specific polyethylene resin that smells like vinegar. “This resin is used for human food packaging all the time,” Dawn explained how the increased sense of smell dogs obtain, resulted in them picking up on this odor. Therefore, the dogs avoided the contents of the package. This example was a time Dawn and her co-workers found significance in the work they were doing and became more inspired by the importance of packaging.


Overall impact

In the words of Dawn MacDonald, “Emmerson packaging has been working on sustainability way before it was cool.” In the early days of their sustainability efforts, Emmerson was able to produce an entirely compostable plastic film, which unfortunately was and still remains too high in cost to produce and sell. However, this innovation put Emmerson at the forefront of sustainability for everyone who was able to see it. This allowed Emmerson’s later designs (landfill degradable and fully recyclable packaging films) a head start, as Emmerson was already the eco-friendly solution in most people's minds. Since the turn of sustainability, Emmerson packaging has been making a monstrous impact both within its own walls as well as in the environment and its surrounding community.

Their early work on eco-friendly packaging meant that most of their potential buyers were already aware of the good they could do by switching to Emmerson’s new packaging solutions. Business continued as planned for Emmerson, whereas other plastic film producers came under fire as the “war on plastic” began. This has allowed Emmerson to edge ahead of the competition and expand. Currently, Emmerson Packaging's main plant in Amherst, along with its sister plant in Belleville, Ontario, employ over 450 employees, creating hundreds of jobs and helping the local economies tremendously. And, yes, creating local jobs and helping the local economy is amazing, but the real magic is the impact that Emmerson is having on the environment.

Emmerson Packaging uses its knowledge of the market and downstream care of plastic waste to essentially create a plastic film that makes garbage disposal accessible to a large population. Emmerson's landfill degradable films circumvent the issues of non-recycling demographics. This package becomes self-degrading when thrown in landfills, and eats itself so that the packaging does not sit there for hundreds of years naturally breaking down. This is very beneficial in communities and regions where there is no recycling infrastructure in place, as it allows the landfills to naturally decrease significantly faster, leaving less waste in landfills. They have also developed ways for their packaging to be completely recycled in proper recycling facilities. Allowing all of the packaging to be reconstructed with the same materials avoids tonnes of plastics from ever even entering the landfill. Emmerson also states that they have, “Reduced our residual solid waste by 60%, lowered our water usage more than 92%, reduced electricity usage by 38%, Reduced Co2 emitted, with electricity generation, by 50%,” meaning that their packaging isn't the only part of their business that is saving the environment.


Business benefit

When we imagine a business trying to go green and become more of a sustainable contributor to the economy, it is always the idea that to achieve such an initiative the firm would have to sacrifice efficiency and in turn profits. This might just be a deadly misconception that holds back firms from achieving sustainable goals. Mrs. Dawn MacDonald mentioned in our interview, “Sustainability and cost-saving go hand in hand.” According to Dawn, production lines become faster and produce less waste when optimizing sustainable designs to the point where costs actually decrease.

Social and environmental benefit

To understand the full scope of how important Emmerson’s packaging is towards societal and environmental benefits we have to view the international world of food transportation. Effective packaging, according to Dawn, "Increases the shelf life of food and allows it to be traded internationally,” which is one way in which this hidden industry supports the no hunger initiative, but also Emmerson’s recycle ready and Methane-Landfill biodegradable packaging innovation reduces the damage this packaging may potentially cause the environment when produced or when it is discarded.

Interviews

Dawn MacDonald, Research and Development Manager

Alex Peters, Technical Project Coordinator

Photo of interviewee

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Emmerson Packaging

Emmerson Packaging

Amherst, Nova Scotia, CA

Business Website: https://www.emmersonpackaging.com/

Year Founded: 1956

Number of Employees: 201 to 500

Emmerson Packaging is a packaging company that specializes in flexible film packaging. Their packaging is primarily designed for food products.