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Big Impact, Little Footprint: Packaging Industry Sustainability Careers

Big Impact, Little Footprint: Packaging Industry Sustainability Careers

Scott Breen, Vice President of Sustainability, Can Manufactures Institute

Big Impact, Little Footprint: Packaging Industry Sustainability Careers

Scott Breen, Vice President of Sustainability, Can Manufactures Institute

Scott Breen

Can you describe your role and how you feel it links to issues around sustainable packaging? Leading a packaging industry’s trade association sustainability program naturally links to issues around sustainable packaging. In sustainable packaging, is important go beyond whether a package is “recyclable” and look to minimize the footprint of producing the package and using materials that perform well on a variety of recycling metrics (e.g., recycling rate, recycled content, value per ton, number of times can be recycled, recycled into something that is also likely to be recycled). To me, sustainability is a process of balancing unintended consequences and driving continuous improvement

What does a typical day look like for you?

I realized through a career development exercise years ago that I am most “in the zone” when I do multiple tasks a day rather than one task all day. Fortunately, my current job has me performing lots of different activities each day such as:

  • Being a resource/thought leader for our members.
  • Drafting a press release or being interviewed by the media to explain a new sustainability initiative.
  • Meeting with consultants that are conducting an activity to inform or execute on a sustainability strategy.
  • Explaining to lawmakers and their staff how the packaging industry is supporting decarbonization efforts and working to further increase recycling rates.
  • Presenting at a conference on industry’s latest sustainability activities.
  • Reviewing regulatory and legislative language on a sustainability-related matter to inform the industry’s position and comments.

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

My interest in environmental issues started as a 14-year-old when I chose to join a 12-day canoe trip in Quetico Provincial Park in Canada while attending Camp Timberlane. I fell in love with this protected area and became interested in how it became protected and what policies have been put in place to keep it that way. While an undergraduate student at Georgetown University and then earning my Master of Public Affairs and law degree at Indiana University, my studies focused on the intersection of business, policy, and science with environmental issues. After my graduate studies, I practiced law for a couple of years at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). While at NOAA, I started the Sustainability Defined podcast in my spare time, which I have been co-hosting for more than six years and is nearing one million downloads. I left NOAA for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation Corporate Citizenship Center (Foundation) because I wanted to be more involved in developing partnerships and initiatives and not only being involved if there’s a legal problem. I helped manage the sustainability and circular economy program at the Foundation where I was fortunate to lead its Beyond 34 recycling initiative. Then I got an opportunity that I continue to be thankful for each day—my current position. It combines a lot of my studies and previous experience, and it lets me extend and grow by professional capacity.

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

One skill that is very important in my role within the field of sustainable packaging is attention to detail. There are a lot of statistics and claims about which packaging is the most sustainable. It is important to analyze these reports and methodologies to understand the basis for the findings. This helps me learn about different analytical approaches as well as comprehend and communicate the weaknesses in certain results as well as avoid these pitfalls in the metal can industry’s research. Attention to detail is also important in my work, particularly when it comes to communications. I want to avoid any accusations of greenwashing or not appropriately framing a claim. I always look to include hyperlinks for statistics so anyone can easily investigate the basis for a particular claim.

It is also important for a role in sustainable packaging to be both curious and helpful. I get asked a lot of questions in my job about the sustainability impacts or ramifications of various things. When I don’t know the answer, it affords me the opportunity to learn something new. I also like providing answers to people both inside and outside the industry. I make a point of getting people answers to their questions quickly, and I appreciate when the same courtesy is extended to me.

As an industry, where do you thinking packaging is making strides on sustainability and where do we still struggle? What do you think is the biggest challenge facing packaging sustainability right now.

Packaging is making strides at having better tools and frameworks for making decisions. Multiple companies offer comparative tools such as Quantis with its eQopack tool and The Recycling Partnership with its Circular Packaging Assessment Tool and some companies have their own internal tools like Pepsi with its Sustainable from the Start program. Then there’s frameworks like World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s packaging sustainability framework called SPHERE. One of the benefits of SPHERE is that it avoids the tunnel vision of only considering climate change impact as it considers other dimensions including water scarcity, biodiversity loss and eco-toxicity. Of course, there can be an overload of tools and frameworks. However, it is good to have a bit of competition from the outset. Hopefully we get to a place where each tool and framework has its reason for existing and there is some coalescing around key ones so there aren’t different methodologies underlying various results that people are using and pushing.

One big challenge is determining the best sustainability messages to put on a package to provide clarity to consumers while capturing the nuances that often exist around packaging sustainability. For example, with recyclability claims, the consumer wants to simply know whether the package can be recycled. However, whether a package is recyclable may depend on where you live. Also, if the labeling system for recycling is limited to “widely recyclable” because it is accepted by most all recycling programs or “not recyclable,” that may make it unnecessarily difficult for packaging that is sometimes recyclable to maintain its current level of recycling and improve upon it. Beyond whether it can be recycled, eco-minded consumers may also want to know the package’s recycled content, carbon footprint, and other metrics. It can be difficult to generate apples-to-apples metrics for every kind of packaging. Therefore, a challenge is how to have metrics that are generally accepted as the authoritative truth that can be put on the package or an accessible website.

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

An all-too-common perception is that consumers believe recyclables are not being recycled and so they feel deceived by packaging recyclability claims. We need to do more to provide the transparency needed to shift that misperception. I wish we could get more granular and be able to quickly show people if you live here, your packaging gets sorted here, and then likely get sold to this processor where it gets turned into a package or some other highly recycled product. Hopefully one day there will be a location-based tool with videos that shows people the steps the recyclables in their community take so that this perception by some that packaging they put in the recycling is not actually being recycled recedes.

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

They should consider the packaging industry because these containment systems enable the safe delivery of so many items that people enjoy. I often find myself in the supermarket marveling at how most everything needs packaging to safely get to the consumer. We should certainly look to limit the use of packaging where possible, but it is necessary for many products. Sustainability professionals in packaging have the interesting, important job of figuring out how to make that necessary packaging deliver the same performance with less impact and with a more efficient, effective system to manage it at the end of its useful life. Young professionals should consider employment in a trade association because of the diversity of work this role affords. When a typical day spans from research, to lobbying to communications you get great exposure to how sustainability intersects with business and policy.

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