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Big Impact, Little Footprint: Packaging Industry Sustainability Careers

Big Impact, Little Footprint: Packaging Industry Sustainability Careers

Patrick Keenan, R&D Principal Packaging Engineer, Annie’s Brand at General Mills

Big Impact, Little Footprint: Packaging Industry Sustainability Careers

Patrick Keenan, R&D Principal Packaging Engineer, Annie’s Brand at General Mills

Patrick KeenanCan you describe your role and how you feel it links to issues around sustainable packaging?

At General Mills we are working hard to achieve our ambition for all of our packaging to be fully recyclable or reusable by 2030.  As a Principal Packaging Engineer I work with many of our brands on initiatives that advance that ambition.  This includes transitioning to recyclable packaging, improving circularity for our packaging & collaborating across the industry.  I am lucky that I got to directly work with Nature Valley as they launched the first recyclable granola bar wrapper, Annie’s Transition to a BPI Certified Industrially Compostable Molded Fiber Cup for Microwavable Mac & Cheese and  support adding recycled content in our Annie’s & Cascadian Farms Cereal.  It’s also great to connect with my peers across industry through organizations like AMERIPEN.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Much of my time is spent providing technical support and guidance on sustainability for our amazing & knowledgeable Innovation, Technology & Quality Team.  We also have full engagement from our entire enterprise: our Global Impact team that facilitates execution of our sustainability commitments, sourcing, operations and marketing to advance our ambition.  I interact with these teams regularly to provide a technical lens.  These interactions include dissecting the technical specification for PE film recyclability, explaining how the store drop-off stream functions or meeting with suppliers on their latest innovations.  Occasionally I get to represent my colleagues as we celebrate the amazing progress we are making at external industry events.

Can you share with a little about your career trajectory and what led you towards this role and an interest in sustainability?

I have a Bachelor of Engineering in Materials Science from McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada & a MBA from University Of California, Davis.  My 15-year career began in a technical packaging role working to eliminate BPA from metal food cans.  After that I moved into the wine industry, putting wine into any package type you could imagine – cans, stand-up pouches, PET and, of course, glass.  I moved over to General Mills through the Annie’s brand where I spent 8 years working on packaging for consumers who are passionate about more sustainable products before joining our Global Packaging Sustainability Team.

What skills do you think are most important for a role in sustainable packaging issues?

Be a creative problem solver who is driven by a challenge.  This is a dynamic space and creative solutions are needed to make even small steps forward.

As an industry, where do you thinking packaging is making strides on sustainability and where do we still struggle?

There is a lot of collaboration happening right now to collect data & create baselines for the current state.  This data driven approach is critical to identifying where the gaps exists & assigning resources appropriately.  We saw a lot of great work happen with the How2Recycle Label, Association of Plastic Recyclers PE Film Specification and TRP Polypropylene working group.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing packaging sustainability right now.

I am passionate about industry aligned, certifiable standards for recyclability.  Much like consumers, I want to take the guessing game out of recycling with packaging design that has clear standards for circularity.  This is especially important for more unique packaging like food contaminated papers, flexible films & small format.

What is one common perception around packaging that you believe challenges the notion that packaging can be a tool for sustainability?

I see two opportunities.  First, the production of food is one of our biggest greenhouse gas impacts and designing packaging that can extend the shelf life or reduce waste is critical to lowering our overall footprint.  Second, patience is important – all solutions aren’t available on day one; we need to iterate and optimize, and that takes time.  It’s going to be a staircase, not an elevator.  As we collaborate collectively, we are improving the system slowly that will unlock consumers ability to recycle more packaging.  This iterative approach will allow us to improve circularity while providing the same high quality, cost effective products to our consumers.  If we talk about these two principles more with consumers, they will better understand all the hard work we are doing to create a circular economy.

If you had one piece of advice for young professionals interested in sustainability, why should they consider the packaging industry? Your specific role?

Sustainability=Innovation.  If you want to be at the forefront of technology in the packaging space the energy is in sustainability.

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