“The role of packaging has never been more vital”

by Gabriele Kosmehl

In times of rapidly changing habits, packaging manufacturers must react particularly quickly and flexibly. In our Top Talk, Eric Roegner, President of Amcor Rigid Packaging, explains what impact the pandemic is having on consumer behaviour and what role PET plays in it, and how they helped a distillery to switch from filling spirits in glass to disinfectants in PET – in just 24 hours.

PETplanet: Earlier this year, you published the insights you have gained during the Covid-19 pandemic. One of the findings deals with changing consumer behaviour, including the shift in packaging formats. Can you briefly explain the changes which have had a particular impact on PET packaging?

Eric Roegner: During the Covid-19 pandemic, there have been clear shifts in shopping practices, product demand, and channel distribution. Despite these changing consumer patterns, the role of packaging has never been more vital, enabling the safe delivery of food, beverages, healthcare products, and home and personal care items including cleaning supplies, hand sanitiser and other essentials. PET containers are lightweight, safe and often more sustainable than aluminium cans, cartons, and glass containers. Hygiene has also emerged as an important safety concern during the pandemic. Capped and sealed PET bottles keep beverages protected from pathogens like viruses and bacteria. They are also sealed to combat contamination and re-sealable for ongoing protection.  

We know from industry research that Covid-19 is re-shaping consumer priorities. Consumers have an increased focus on preventative health, cooking at home, ecommerce, buying in bulk, and sustainability. All these shifts have implications to product demand as well as how those products are packaged.

We’ve seen ecommerce growth accelerate during the pandemic. A McKinsey & Co. report notes that sales in this channel will see a sustained post-crisis increase. As a result, the bottles and jars produced for the ecommerce supply chain must function accordingly – no leaks, breaks, or dents. Since consumers will not tolerate a poor unboxing experience, an opportunity for PET packaging has emerged. PET bottles and jars stand up to the rigors of the ecommerce channel, providing benefits such as lighter weight, reduced carbon footprint, reduced freight costs, breakage and safety advantages, and easy handling and opening.

The Covid-19 outbreak has also caused a stark shift in the products that consumer demand. For example, earlier this year, Multi-Channel Merchant reported that demand for hand sanitiser skyrocketed more than 800 per cent. This demand created an opportunity for hundreds of U.S. distilleries and wineries to rapidly transform their operations. Amcor jumped in to assist current customers from the spirits, home, and personal care segments with their bottling needs. Our teams also supported smaller distilleries as they activated locally. Shifting from wine or spirits to hand sanitiser requires adjustments to the entire operation including a necessary shift in the packaging format, typically from glass to PET bottles.

“Covid-19 is re-shaping consumer priorities”

PETplanet: How exactly has Amcor been able to support its clients with these changes?

Eric Roegner: Throughout North America, we played a key role in enabling the availability of hand sanitiser. At the local level, producing and packaging hand sanitiser is manual and requires all hands on deck. Distilleries were accustomed to using glass packaging for its spirits products. It’s not a secret that glass bottles can break, are heavy and often more expensive to transport, and not easy to recycle. PET, however, won’t shatter – so no breaking bottle will shut the line down to remove glass contamination or to prevent an injury. In addition, according to Amcor’s Asset Lifecycle Analysis, PET bottles often have a lower carbon footprint than alterative glass bottles.

We worked closely with one of our customers, Michigan-based Ugly Dog Distillery, one of the oldest craft distilleries in the U.S., which shifted its production facilities from spirits to hand sanitiser. In less than 24 hours, our teams were getting Ugly Dog the bottles it needed – and helping to enable some virus prevention for healthcare workers and the community at large.

PETplanet: If we take a look at the North American market: apart from Covid-19, what other trends in bottle sizes and design can you observe here?

Eric Roegner: We have continued to focus on sustainable innovation and technology as our primary growth levers. It is an area where we have launched on average over 200 products per year. We have been able to develop proprietary technologies that have allowed us to have 170 patent families. If you look at the key products we are launching, they are around design for recyclability, lightweighting, barrier capability, as well as increased use of PCR.

Design and size trends will always be built on the brand and the desired customer experience. Our role is to deliver that. This is where Amcor’s innovation engine shines. We have consistently driven innovation that enables sophisticated designs, along with lighter weight packages with more PCR. We design bottles that cater to everything from sample size to elaborate detail that delivers distinction on the shelf – what the most brand – loyal customer craves.

PETplanet:  To what extent has the Covid-19 pandemic changed your internal processes? And which of these can you foresee implementing in the long term?

Eric Roegner: Everything we do at Amcor starts with safety. Given the context around Covid-19, we’ve also focused on keeping our teams healthy as well. As we continue to navigate the additional risk and complexity of operating during the ongoing pandemic, we remain confident that the health and safety protocols we implemented – and continue to evaluate – will enable our co-workers to remain healthy and keep our plants running as they have been thus far.

We have successfully navigated and implemented technology platforms to lessen the frequency of visits and reduce the potential spread of Covid-19. From the customer visit to our manufacturing plants, our goal is to keep everyone safe.

PETplanet:  And which of these can you foresee implementing in the long term?

Eric Roegner

Eric Roegner: It’s unclear what a post-pandemic business environment will look like. We’re prepared to meet any challenges with the ultimate goal of protecting the health and safety of all our stakeholders.

PETplanet: What is Amcor’s experience with digital exchange? Do you think you will continue this approach in the post-Covid era and are you aiming for a “back to normal” as soon as possible in terms of business travel and customer visits?

Eric Roegner: With travel restrictions reducing face-to-face engagement, we’ve changed how we interact with our work teams and customers by incorporating more video conferencing. This technology has become the backbone of our work-from-home practices, like so many other employers around the world.  Almost instantaneously, our home and work lives have collided, but we’re managing through it with great success. 

At the same time, I’m very proud of our 50-plus plants that continue to run, uninterrupted, throughout the last nine months of this pandemic. Their tireless effort and unwavering commitment to our customers has resulted in the continuous supply of essential packaging during this most critical time in our history.

Now, I spend most of my time in virtual meetings – sometimes those meetings include family member cameos. Today, we update profiles, share content, and incorporate the right key words and hashtags so people can find us quickly. Working through the pandemic stay-at-home orders, social media channels have enabled the supply chain to remain “open for business.” Our sales team found opportunities through social media friends and community organisation timelines. LinkedIn was where customers offered us virtual “pats on the back” for on-time deliveries and maintaining production schedules and commitments, often to their own local communities.

PETplanet: How is Amcor responding to environmental challenges?

Eric Roegner: Requirements for packaging are increasing with end-of-life solutions and waste reduction being critical. Consumers want packaging to be cost-effective, convenient, easy-to-use, great-looking, and more sustainable and leading to less waste. Responsible packaging is the answer. Amcor packaging is already recyclable or reusable, including more than 95% of the Amcor rigids portfolio. The company continues to design packaging that uses less material in the first place. Amcor became the first global packaging company pledging to develop all its packaging to be recyclable or reusable by 2025, directly addressing a major environmental issue with its capability, scale and reach. PET bottles and jars often have the lowest carbon footprint and their production results in up to 70% less greenhouse gas emissions than other packaging materials, according to Amcor’s Asset Lifecycle Analysis.

PETplanet: A big talking point currently is 100% rPET beverage bottles. Is it simply a marketing tool or is it a sensible route to sustainability?

Eric Roegner: We don’t consider the use of post-consumer recycled materials to be a trend. We have been working with customers to incorporate 100% PCR materials into their packaging for over 15 years. Customers are being very strategic and have recognised the importance of a circular economy for all packaging, including PET bottles and jars.

We have seen a radical growth rate in the use of PCR. As the industry leader in the use of PCR, we have many commercialised packages in 100% PCR and utilised more than 100 million lb annually over the last 3-4 years. PET, which has rapidly become the world’s preferred packaging material, is lightweight, shatterproof, resealable, reusable, and infinitely recyclable.

Amcor is one the industry’s best equipped manufacturers of PCR bottles, capable of maintaining high quality and a highly stable and consistent manufacturing process. The company is a leader in advancing the use of PCR in a range of PET and HDPE packaging. Amcor incorporates varying percentages of PCR for its customers and has invested significant time and resources in developing and securing reliable sources of the highest quality PCR plastics.

PETplanet: Thank you very much Eric!

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