Plastic has been around for the longest time and is the staple material for packaging. And with the recent pandemic and online shopping, you would think that the use of plastic has diminished, but you couldn’t be more wrong. It has increased significantly along with the misconception of destroying the planet. Would you believe that you, as the consumer, play the biggest role in the life cycle of plastic materials and how it affects the environment? In this episode, Jonathan Quinn, Director of Market Development and Sustainability at Pregis, shares their commitment to preserving the environment. He also talks about the Emerging Leadership Council’s mission and the importance of educating the consumers, especially the younger generation, about the value of recyclable flexible materials and avoiding misconceptions about the use of flexible packaging and plastic recycling. Tune in and learn how you can make a difference when using plastic.
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There’s More To Plastic: Changing The Narrative On Plastic Packaging With Jonathan Quinn Of Pregis
I am speaking with Jonathan Quinn, who is the Director of Market Development and Sustainability at Pregis. He leads the market segmentation strategy and execution along with all facets of flexible packaging sustainability. Jonathan joined Pregis in June of 2021 and also has a history in the plastic packaging and marketing at companies, including NOVA and ITW. Jonathan’s a recognized expert in packaging sustainability, which is a hot topic these days, and was named in the Top 40 Under 40 by Waste360. That’s a pretty awesome accomplishment. Jonathan, welcome to the show.
Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be here and jump into the conversation.
Thanks. I appreciate you joining me. Let’s get started. What’s your origin story? How did you get interested in packaging?
I grew up around the flexible packaging industry. There were pictures of me in a box of resin when I was two. I was in the lab doing testing when I was five because it’s what I thought was the cool thing to do. My dad was a CEO of a number of flexible packaging companies. I’m the third generation of my family that’s in the packaging industry. My grandfather was a press operator before my dad, but that’s where the fire came from. Growing up, my dream was always to work and be in the packaging industry. I knew I always wanted to be on the commercial side of things. That’s where my dream came to go to Clemson and study Packaging. That’s what I did. Now I also have my younger brother in the industry. It’s become a family affair.
That’s interesting because I don’t think we often hear that packaging is the family business, but that makes sense. You studied it. You lived in it. You’ve worked in it. What’s the biggest misconception about plastics and packaging? I’m sure that when you’re out and about, your friends wonder why you’re doing this or they have something to say. What do you see as some of the biggest misconceptions that exist across consumer and public perception about packaging?
At the end of the day, we all know and heard it, but that plastic is evil. To your point about your friends knowing what industry and things of that nature, me and my wife years ago, we were at a wedding. We met these people. They’re discussing what I did, what she did. She explained that I was in the plastics industry and in packaging.
That was when I was working at NOVA. They looked at me like I was evil because we were in Florida at a wedding on a beach and it was supposed to be this fantastic thing. I’m sitting there, the evil guy standing on the beach that works for the plastics industry. Without missing a beat, my wife jumps in and said, “No, it’s not evil. Plastic isn’t bad.”Buy plastic, live fantastic. Click To Tweet
She goes, “Buy plastic, live fantastic.” I was like, “Where did that come from?” It was one of those proud moments of your wife standing up for you. I turned that buy plastic, live fantastic into a hashtag to try and be able to promote the value of flexible packaging to promote the value of plastic because at the end of the day, plastic provides and enables the everyday life of the everyday consumer. Plastic is not evil. We have to help make sure the consumer understands that. Every opportunity that I have, that’s one of the things that I look for.
I have two kids. My hope is that they want to be a part of the plastic and flexible packaging industry one day, and that they’re proud to be a part of it. I don’t want them to have to go to school and worry about somebody saying, “No, your dad’s evil because he works in plastic.” We’ve got to enable them and give them the ammunition to also help promote the value of plastic and plastic packaging, but it starts with the consumer.
It’s interesting. I’m old enough that I’ve seen some of the evolution in packaging in terms of changing, even something like milk bottles, which used to be in coated paperboard. Eventually, they migrated to plastic gallons. That was awesome. Soda is starting from glass bottles. I remember the first 2-liter bottle I saw, I was like, “What is this? Who could drink that much soda?” As it turns out, a lot of consumers can. Sometimes individuals, if they’ve not seen the evolution of how plastics have contributed to lightweighting and longevity of food, all the contributions it makes, it’s easy to see, “I use it and then I dispose of it.”
Not understanding what the use case is. In fact, what’s interesting is McKinsey published the climate impact of plastics study, which looked at the life cycle analysis of plastics packaging in particular and concluded that plastics have a lower total greenhouse gas contribution than alternatives in most applications. In something like 13 out of 14 categories, plastics is better. Yet to your point, people don’t understand that. How do we change that narrative? What do you see working to change the narrative, if anything?
One of the big things, and similar to you, as you reflected back on the evolution of glass and Coke and carbonated beverages and that transition, if I reflect back to when I was in elementary school and younger, it was always about save the toucan, save the trees. We can’t cut down the rainforest so that we can have paper. We have to come up with different ways. In addition to that, it was: don’t smoke. What do we do with that stop smoking campaign? We take all that messaging and we bring it home. The same is true now. There’s a real opportunity to educate consumers and the younger levels, educating kids and the teachers in the schools and creating science-based programs for them to implement and educate so that they’re all taking this message and bringing it home and building off of it.
That’s where I see there being a critical opportunity to make sure that the misinformation misunderstanding doesn’t continue to fester in the younger generations, but they’re able to bring up and showcase that. Showing them and bringing that awareness and overall value for materials and showcasing to them how they can recycle flexible materials. One of the biggest challenges is that there’s not curbside recycling of flexible materials. There are a number of things that are at play there. Creating and leveraging those programs for younger people is probably one of our greatest opportunities.
Do those programs exist yet? I know you’re involved pretty heavily with Flexible Packaging Association, maybe others. Do you see those programs coming to fruition?
Yeah. That’s one of the fundamental and foundational reasons in why I started the Emerging Leadership Council within the Flexible Packaging Association. It was to create opportunities to educate at the younger levels to create modules for member companies to be able to leverage and go out and educate in their communities about the value of flexible packaging and the value around plastics recycling. That’s one of the things I would say that has taken off. If you look at the Trex program that exists where they create challenges, there are challenges out there between schools.
There are ways to create collection in schools to bring flexible materials into the school to recycle versus having to take those to the grocery store. It enables the students to see how by bringing in your flexible materials, once they collect 500 pounds, for example, within a six-month period, they get a free bench made out of Trex decking board, which helps the students to understand that there’s multiple lives that this plastic packaging can have.
I’ve heard about that program. I’ve spoken to a couple of people about it because it should be widespread in schools. We should be encouraging.
It’s something people can do that are reading that they can do in their own offices. I did this at NOVA. We’ve also now done this and rolled it out across the board at Pregis. It’s probably one of the coolest things that has happened since I’ve been at Pregis. The goal and the target is to hit 500 pounds over six month period. In our Grand Rapids facility, we were able to have about close to 150 to 200 employees in Grand Rapids. They were able to collect in the first six weeks, 2,000 pounds of flexible materials. Why is that such a big deal? That 500 pounds is the equivalent to 42,000 grocery bags. That’s a lot of film and material.
We’ve had one employee who created a partnership with a local food bank to get their flexible materials because they weren’t recycling it and brought that material in. Now it’s created a connection and then an education opportunity for that food bank, plus us working collaboratively and collectively to increase the amount of flexible material being recycled and to showcase that value of flexible packaging recycling.Plastic is not evil. Click To Tweet
That’s interesting. That’s cool, the whole network effect of it. One of the challenges is people get these items, let’s say, grocery bags. In theory, it’s nice to say, “I’m going to bring my own bag to the grocery store.” For me personally, COVID changed all of that. I used to go to the grocery store. I would bring my own bags and then COVID started. They don’t want your bags because they might be dirty. I have converted to much more online shopping and picking it up at the store. All I can do is figure out a way to recycle it, which fortunately, most stores take the bags back, but it’s a hassle. Creating that awareness and turning it into something good is useful.
That’s part of when I talk about why we did what we did in our plants is Pregis is traditionally a protective packaging company. We’ve seen tremendous growth over the past few years. Even over the course of the past few years, not just COVID-related, because the mind of the consumer and that convenience has shifted. You’re not different than many consumers in that you’re focusing on spending more time and buying online versus going to the store. What we have to think about is how do we enable and make recycling convenient and thoughtless. What you have to think about is pre-pandemic, the average home parcel deliveries per household were 152 eCommerce home parcel deliveries per year.
In post-pandemic, it exceeded 200 times per household. What does that mean? That means that there are 200 opportunities to pick up those flexible materials and take them back because all of those delivery vehicles end up going back empty. There’s a way to create a program and infrastructure to enable and make it easy. Even if you just focus it on mailers and air pillows and bubbles and things of that nature, you’re able to create a significant increase in the amount of plastic and flexible plastic material that’s being collected. It’s oftentimes the cleanest. It helps to take that inconvenience associated with flexible film or flexible material recycling out of them.
Recycling film is critical to the whole advanced recycling processes and infrastructure that’s being built. If I look at the change over the past couple of years, heavy emphasis, we’re starting to see real commercialization, advanced recycling to turn these flexible packaging films into a chemical feedstock to go back into plastics polyethylene manufacturing. Certainly, a high emphasis from major corporations and from consumer products companies to increase recycled content recyclability. Yet, sometimes to a certain degree, I wonder, do consumers care and do they care enough to do the work to make that happen, but it’s putting the rest of the puzzle together, which sounds like you’re working at least in your sphere of influence to do.
The caring is one thing, but the knowing is the other aspect. That’s the other critical part of the conversation when we talk about the consumer. At the end of the day, there’s a lot of legislation that’s being done. Who’s making that legislation? Who’s bringing that legislation forward? It’s the consumer. We have to make sure that the legislators understand the decisions they’re making, the proposals they’re bringing forward, and their impact and consequences. You brought up advanced recycling. There’s a number of states that don’t support advanced recycling. Those are the states where we need to focus and make sure that people understand that. We talk about advanced recycling.
We’re not talking about necessarily waste of energy. We’re breaking the product back down to the monomer, the pyrolysis oil state, and bringing it right back to the virgin material. We need to do that in critical applications like food and medical to have that recycled content, to have that broad impact when it comes to the circular economy. Those are some of those critical things. That’s why that education piece is critical. It’s not for just the general consumer. It’s for the broad consumer base and eliminating that misinformation that people take forward in a policy and legislative position.
One of the things you talked about is the consequences of these legislative actions and understanding the impact. We’ve seen the downsides of some of these things. Certainly, if we think about energy, some of the energy policies in Europe that have had negative consequences when there wasn’t wind energy available, there are the knock-on effects of all this. When we start looking at these targets for 2030 and 2050 about recycled content, it’s hard to see a glide path there easily because the infrastructure is not there. The value chain is disconnected at this point in time.
Comment around that infrastructure and where the recycle stream is now, and this is one of the most critical points is that when it comes to the quality and feed and supply, it’s not there yet. We’re on this evolution and trajectory. We’re going to get there, but we’re still in that infancy. Taking and having the highest quality PCR, it’s a continuous improvement type of situation. We’ll eventually get there, but where we are now isn’t where we need to be.
Let’s talk a little bit about Pregis. What’s Pregis’ approach on sustainability and recycling? What are some of the key activities that Pregis is taking on now?
One of my most passionate reasons for being a part of Pregis is their position in regards to sustainability and what we’ve been able to develop and do over the course of the past few months and continue to evolve on that, but it lies and revolves around three pillars. It’s to protect, preserve, and inspire. The protection aspect is protecting products. It’s eliminating free shipments on that traditional Pregis side of the business where it’s been around protective packaging but then focused on our flexible blown film side of things. It’s about food preservation and eliminating waste, food waste, and things of that nature.
The preserve aspect is preserving the environment, making sure that we’re not impacting, that we’re reducing our impact on the environment through all different sorts of various initiatives and our commitment to the climate pledge and our commitment and membership within the alliance and plastic waste and a number of flexible packaging association as well, and a number of other things. Our inspire is one of the things that I personally probably connect with the most because my mission for as long as I can remember has been to positively impact people.
Inspire is that. It’s about having an impact on people, the people in which we operate, the communities in which we live on a global basis. We also have our Inspire product line. If you ever see a blue inflatable or blue bubble wrap, most likely that it’s ours. Why it has that blue tint is we’re associated with an organization called Zima.Packaging is not one material or the other. There's no silver bullet. We got to be about collaboration and partnership. Click To Tweet
Part of the proceeds from that product line go to bringing water filtration to at-risk or communities that have been faced with a natural disaster and don’t have access to clean drinking water. One of the things that a lot of us take for granted is our access to clean drinking water. Making sure that we’re having and investing and having that positive impact on people is what is foundational within that inspire pillar. All of that comes together to round out our overarching sustainability focus.
I’m going to loop back onto the Emerging Leadership Council. It ties into this positively impacting people. As part of the Flexible Packaging Association, you founded the Emerging Leadership Council. What is it? Why does it matter?
Growing up around the industry and while I was a student at Clemson, I won the Flexible Packaging Association’s scholarship. I had been a fan of the Flexible Packaging Association, obviously. Notice that there was a high level of engagement as far as a higher level within organizations, but as far as visibility for others and the development of people within the association, it wasn’t happening.
I also did some research into understanding membership and membership retention and family-owned businesses were coming into the next generation and they were going to these meetings and saying, “I don’t want to hang out with these people. I don’t know them. I’m not connected.” That’s not what we need. We need to be connected, cohesive, and progress as an industry.
I brought this idea to create engagement to bring that next generation of leadership along for the ride and help sustain the industry for many generations. One of the big things was getting these people engaged and making sure that this wasn’t just going to become a Millennial party. This was going to be an action-based group that was going to make progress that would bring a different dimension to the association and the industry to create a separation between the flexible packaging industry as a whole and others.
We have four basic committees that all roll up into the Emerging Leadership Council focused on education, which speaks to what we were talking about earlier about educating younger people and older people as well on the value of the flexible packaging industry. Recruitment and leadership development is all under one.The value of flexible packaging and plastic packaging to the everyday consumer is real. We have to continue to find ways to showcase that. Click To Tweet
Within recruitment, we have an intern program that is conducted throughout the summer. It’s an internship program where we’re bringing interns from different companies to have a weekly interaction for about an hour and a half, whether it’s programming across companies. This creates a network on all those interns with other interns and the members of the ELC. It’s a small group, so we can learn from each other. They can ask for advice they may not feel comfortable asking their boss.
It creates a safe space for them and differentiation because I don’t know of an industry anywhere with something like this. We also have a committee on diversity, equity, and inclusion. This is something that I’m passionate about to make sure that everyone feels like they can bring their whole self to work and to the industry and make sure we’re getting different perspectives and different ideas.
This committee is focused on creating a playbook and programs that member companies can roll out within their organization. Maybe they don’t have the horsepower or the capability to do something like this, but we give them out of the box, a way and a guide path to being able to do that. The fourth is advocacy. This is all about advocating and understanding policy and the policy-related conversations. This is being engaged in those conversations and creating tools and guidance for the member companies as well. That’s how the ELC came to be and what it’s become. It’s having an impact.
If people wanted to be part of the Emerging Leadership Council, how do they do that?
In order to be a part of the ELC, you first have to be a part of an FPA member company. If you are a part of a member company, there is a nomination. Whoever serves as the primary member within the FPA would be able to nominate you.
That sounds like a great organization. I know one of the things we discussed before we started was even this need to enable that next generation of leadership, to lead and have that impact to have the networks. The fact that you’ve created an intern network across companies is powerful. I know personally, one of the hardest things about going to an industry group. You didn’t call it out, but I’ll call it out. It’s the gray hairs. It’s always the gray hairs are there. They all seem to know each other already. Figuring out how to break in when you’re not part of the in-crowd is difficult. Helping people create that network early in their careers is helpful and unique.
I’ve tried to be a part of that in-crowd, but it’s fine if I could say maybe I’m halfway into the in-crowd, but if I only was part of that in-crowd in 10, 15 years, I’ll be sitting there by myself and finding ways to bring others along for the ride, finding ways to create engagement and leverage their learning. Also, if you look at it more long-term is making sure that we have sustained success and leadership and create that continuous bright light as far as the future is concerned. The best is yet to come for the industry. For that to be a reality, we must continuously pull great people, great minds, and people with passion. We have to bring all that together to make sure we continuously advance.
It sounds like you’ve got a lot of great things on your plate that you are working on. What’s next for you? What’s next for Pregis? What’s next for flexible packaging? What do you see coming up?
That’s probably one of the coolest questions I’ve ever been asked because there’s so much. As far as Pregis is concerned, we’re in a tremendously awesome position in that we are material neutral and we have a material-neutral offering of paper and plastic, but we have the science and fact-based knowledge and awareness to support that. That makes us well positioned to be a part of these conversations in regards to on the state level.
We’re going to continue to be engaged there, continuing to make sure that the voice of sustainable packaging is heard. Sustainable packaging is not one material or the other. There’s no silver bullet. We got to be about collaboration and partnership. We’ve invested significantly in our blown film extrusion capabilities over the course of a few months.
We have a significant and further investment in that area, an area within the blown film category that has not seen a relevant major player come into the market in many years. We’ll continue there and focus on all the other categories, whether that’s bagging or surface protection or inside the box protection or systems approach. There’s so much excitement right now within Pregis. Within the flexible packaging industry, we’ve got so much horsepower and positive momentum. Do we have some turbulent waters ahead in facing some of the legislative conversations? Yes, but the facts don’t lie. You brought up the McKinsey study. The value that flexible packaging, plastic packaging brings, and plastics broadly brings to the everyday consumer is real.
We have to continue to find ways to showcase that to consumers. At the end of the day, the future is bright. There are a lot of passionate people within the industry within plastics and packaging as a whole. I’m excited to be along for the ride. At the end of the day, creating ways to make those gray hairs proud of what they’ve left behind and what they enabled, because, at the end of the day, we wouldn’t have anything had it not been for the roads and the bricks that they had laid. We got to make sure we continue. We’re not going to do it necessarily the same way they did. We’ll do things a little bit differently, but that’s okay. As long as we make sure to continuously improve and evolve and have the consumer in mind, we’ll do everything we need to.
I appreciate you joining me, Jonathan. This has been a great conversation. People are going to love learning more about your perspectives and the work that you and Pregis and the Flexible Packaging Association are doing. Thanks for joining us on the show.
Thank you so much. I appreciate you and all the work and creating this visibility to everything that’s taking place because it’s much needed. I know that I appreciate it and others do as well.
Thank you for that. Thanks, everyone, for joining. Stay tuned for the next episode. We’ll see you soon.
- Flexible Packaging Association
About Jonathan Quinn
Jonathan Quinn is the Director of Market Development and Sustainability at Pregis, where he leads the market segmentation strategy development and execution along with all facets of flexible packaging sustainability focused on providing innovative products and services that Protect, Preserve,Inspyre. Jonathan joined Pregis in June of 2021.
Jonathan is recognized as an expert in the areas of Packaging Sustainability, consumer insight and voice of consumer associated with packaging. He has conducted extensive consumer research on the e-Commerce and consumer packaged goods sectors. Prior to joining Pregis, Jonathan most recently held Marketing leadership roles at NOVA Chemicals. Additionally, he has held sales leadership and business development roles at Illinois Tool Works Zip-Pak division, the COESIA Group, and Multisorb Technologies.
Quinn holds a Bachelor of Science in Packaging Science and Business Management from Clemson University. Currently, Jonathan is the founder and Chairman of the Emerging Leadership Council at the Flexible Packaging Association (FPA) along with the Chairman’s Advisory Council, and is on the Global Board of Directors of the International Safe Transit Association (ISTA). In June of 2021, Jonathan was appointed to the Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE) Advisory Board for Diversity and Inclusion.
Most recently Jonathan was appointed in July 2022 to Advisory Board for the Schools of Food, Nutrition and Packaging Sciences at Clemson University. Jonathan was designated a “Rising Star under 35” by Plastics News in 2018 and the Canadian Plastics Industry Association (CPIA) Young Leader of the Year in 2019. In February of 2021 Jonathan was recognized by Plastics News as a top Social Media influencer in Plastics and Packaging. In January of 2022 Jonathan received the designation of 40 under 40 by Waste360 for his contributions to waste, recycling, and sustainability. He can be found on all social media channels under the handle @JQUINNPACKAGED
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