• Retail, Waste, Business

Meaningful progress becomes achievable through a shared vision for circularity

Ann O’Hara, president of Huhtamaki North America is on a mission to build better food packaging sustainability through customer collaborations. O’Hara maintains that the key to achieving this goal is to fully understand the customers’ product in order to provide the best protection for its contents. 

“2021 has been a big year for our business,” reflects Ann O’Hara, President of Huhtamaki North America. “Operating in this climate has provided its share of challenges, and despite, this we have gained some substantial wins through innovation-driven actions. Over the past decade, our team has been incredibly successful, and we have seen the momentum carry over into this year.”

O’Hara, who started at Huhtamaki’s North American division in late 2020, describes her primary aim in two parts. The first is to create a safe and productive work environment, where employees are motivated to reach their individual and team’s potential. The next is to delight customers through both exemplary service and solutions that are rooted in quality, innovation, and sustainability.

“We support a circular food economy by helping our customers make informed choices, and together, we collaborate to develop suitable solutions.”

“We support a circular food economy by helping our customers make informed choices; together, we collaborate to develop suitable solutions,” O’Hara states. “The most important role of packaging is to protect what’s inside. It is why we support an integrated approach with our customers – taking the time to fully understand their product, what we need to do on our end to maintain the integrity of the contents and to assess which materials and forms can properly accomplish this objective.”  

Creating sustainable practices within customer collaboration

According to O’Hara, a key element for a better offering is to produce packaging that takes into consideration the end users’ environment.

“What do the surroundings of the consumers look like? Where can they recycle and where can they compose? Knowing this helps us to develop intuitive packaging, so that people know what to do with it next,” adds O’Hara. “The benefit to our customers comes from our broad market exposure, in addition to extensive material expertise and process competencies. We are in strong position to recommend the best choices, as well as to provide better alternatives.”

Material positive applications as a model for best practices

“We have a broad range of experts specializing in fiber packaging – where we are a prominent global leader – as well as a high level of plastics expertise globally across flexibles and rigid plastics in food service applications,” O’Hara says of Huhtamaki’s competences. “As a result, I consider us to be a material positive company in that we consider the function and benefits of various material options in each application.”

O’Hara believes that this distinction is important, as there exists an abundance of trade-offs in the pursuit of sustainability, where the performance capability of a particular packaging option depends on its composition and usage.

“In general, plastic packaging tends to get a bad rap. But what role should packaging play in the circular economy?” asks O’Hara. “I return to this question again because we know the value of food and product protection. Plastics can be very effective in carrying out this function with the least amount of material. Additionally, a coating or laminate is often used in fiber packaging to ensure its function in protecting the products it covers in a durable and cost-efficient way.”

The focus, O’Hara maintains, should not rest with one material as the ultimate solution, but rather a broader view on available options in relation to the goals to be achieved.

“Fit-for-purpose packaging is our approach to promoting the circular economy as delivering a sustainable solution depends on the context of how it is used by the consumer and the environment it exists within,” O’Hara states. “In a water-stressed environment, for example, reusable packaging is less optimal as it contributes to the resource shortage, whereas single use is the preferred solution, provided that there are systems in place to take care of its end-of-life.”

Committing to transparency drives our sustainability goals 

“As a global company based in the Nordics, I find that our long-term oriented investors want and expect us to make smart and often difficult choices to become more sustainable,” notes O’Hara. “These shareholders and other stakeholders encourage the company to create a sustainability program and targets – to hold ourselves accountable and to report transparently is fundamental, as what gets measured gets actioned.

Huhtamaki, explains O’Hara, utilizes a sustainability dashboard that are used at all levels of the company both globally and locally, throughout its operations.

“Our metrics include operational sustainability or how sustainably we perform in our internal systems,” maintains O’Hara. “Answering questions about our energy usage or how efficiently our water management systems are being run is an indicator of how well we are achieving these targets. At the same time, we look at the shape of our commercial sustainability, where our products are evaluated based on set criteria, for example, the percentages of our products’ renewable and recycled materials content or their compost ability. In 30 years, I hope to see Huhtamaki’s operations achieve net zero, or more ambitiously, net positive.”

This article is part of a series where different stakeholders discuss how fit for purpose packaging is essential for sustainable food systems. The articles are published ahead of our virtual roundtable.

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