Everything comes in a package, according to Matthew Daum, Ph.D., Director of the Michigan State University (MSU) School of Packaging in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR). As a seasoned senior-level manager with experience in R&D, Supply Chain, Packaging and Big Data analytics leadership, he has a track record of identifying, developing and deploying innovative engineering and business solutions that meet customer needs and drive business results.
From Daum’s perspective, any kind of consumer product that is purchased, such as any electronic item, food item, or pharmaceutical product – from life-saving vaccines right on down to deodorant or bug spray – comes in some kind of package. “The package is often complimentary to the product or even provides the products’ functionality.”
Daum often tells students that packaging adds a lot of value. “Packaging provides for safe shipment and dispensing of vaccines, for example. It protects and extends food’s shelf life. But perhaps the most familiar way packaging adds value is communicating to consumers,” he says.
He provides a typical scenario: “You walk into a store and have all these different choices. You are reading the packaging, and something grabs your attention. Or the graphics look nice enough for you to buy it, or the geometry of the packaging itself is interesting, perhaps like a perfume bottle.” From Daum’s perspective, this is where packaging really comes into play as part of the consumer journey, because it can evoke emotion, give confidence in a brand promise, or communicates to consumers the convenience we want in our everyday life.
Form follows function
At the School of Packaging, Daum shares that teaching stems from a holistic, material-neutral point of view. “That means when we talk about whether a packaging is more or less sustainable, we try to consider the whole value chain all the way from raw material extraction through the package creation and all the way through end of life. You have to consider all the natural resources that are required to create a package and to move a package from point A to point B.”
“There's no one magic material for all applications, but you can achieve this goal of neutrality in a lot of different ways.”
He points out someone may pick a material because it is perceived to be recyclable, but it could be physically heavier than other options which defeats the purpose because more fossil fuel is burned during transport. “For instance, a material could take a huge amount of water to make, such as a paper or cotton product. It can actually be, in some cases, a larger drain on natural resources than anyone involved making the product ever intended it to be.”
What Daum tries to impart on students is the importance of stepping back and looking holistically at how to reduce an item’s footprint on the environment. “There is no one magic material for all applications, but you can achieve progress towards the goal of carbon neutrality in a lot of different ways. Often, this entails tailoring the right package type and the right package material to the right application,” he continues.
Waste not, want not
One great example of this is food waste, which has a huge humanitarian impact. “It is a big, big drain on world resources. America alone throws out about USD 161 billion worth of food each year, so sometimes a relatively small investment in packaging and packaging systems can have a huge return on investment for food preservation and human health.”
Nevertheless, Daum remains hopeful for the future. He thinks that within the next ten to fifteen years, a lot of scalable innovation with nanoparticle addition to materials will emerge. “Change could come quickly; for example, antimicrobial surfaces that reduce spoilage and contamination. That is just one area that could reduce food waste.”
Recycle, renew, reuse
In addition, Daum believes the packaging industry will discover other ways to reduce material usage and more sustainable design over time. “There is research into coatings for paper to make performance more plastic-like and yet fully recyclable, without chemicals like PFAS. In the area of recycling, there are interesting developments sorting systems to take advantage of embedded watermarks that aid in automatic sorting. Using artificial intelligence, you can image a sorting system able to detect material type, then sort it appropriately without manual sorting we have today.”
Another recycling area Daum is excited about is one that we are only beginning to touch on as a planet. “I hope thirty years from now chemical recycling would be commonplace, to go back to the original, basic monomers that made up the material and then reuse them.”
As far as possible changes in the packaging industry are concerned, Daum is convinced that what seems far out today might be the solution we need for tomorrow. “One simple change could potentially save billions of pounds of food and billions of dollars,” he says. And that is as good a reason to start increasing research as any.