Paper Or Plastic? Packaging Science A Hot Ticket For College Grads

Tom Nordlie (352) 392-1773 x 277

Bruce Welt, (352) 392-7724
Bryon Crump, (314) 739-1202, ext. 209
Kenneth Berger, (352) 392-9129

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Environmentally-aware college students may want to think outside the box — literally — and consider packaging science, a fast-growing sector of the container industry where waste reduction is good business.

“North American corporations spend $50 billion to $100 billion annually on packaging, and they all want to spend less,” said Bruce Welt, a packaging science professor with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “With better packaging technology they send less material to landfills, which saves money and benefits the environment.”

This fall, UF’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences will launch an undergraduate degree program in packaging science, one of nine nationwide, Welt said. The program stresses environmental issues, but includes a diverse combination of disciplines — engineering, physics, chemistry, even marketing.

“This is highly applied science,” said Kenneth Berger, a UF packaging science professor. “Think about what you want from a potato chip bag it should keep the chips fresh, seal out contaminants, protect against breakage and look appealing. These aren’t theoretical problems, they’re real-world business considerations.”

And employers need packaging science majors, Berger said. By industry estimates, 5,000 positions open each year for degreed professionals, but universities produce only 500 graduates, he said. Supply may not equal demand until 2010. With a bachelor’s degree, packaging science majors can expect starting salaries in the $40,000 range.

While the packaging science industry isn’t well-known to the general public, its impact is as familiar as the grocery-store catchphrase, “paper or plastic?”

“The paper-versus-plastic dilemma illustrates one of the most important trends in packaging today, something called life cycle assessment,” Welt said. “It teaches you to look at the big picture.

“Many people assume paper bags are a better environmental choice, because trees are renewable. But paper is heavier, so we need more trucks burning more fuel and producing more exhaust to transport the same number of bags. Sometimes there is no obvious best choice.”

Welt said life cycle assessment helps package designers focus on delivering the essential functions a client needs, with a minimum of waste.

For instance, Welt said, corporations such as the McDonald’s restaurant chain save millions of dollars each year by eliminating unnecessary material from boxes, bags and other containers.

“McDonald’s also reduced its packaging with alternative materials,” he said. “They stopped using foam boxes for sandwiches and substituted polymer-coated paper wrappers.”

New technology also allows paper to compete with foam and plastic packaging in more sophisticated applications, said Bryon Crump, sales and product development manager with EnviroPAK, a St. Louis-based corporation specializing in molded paper pulp packaging.

EnviroPAK recycles newspaper into customized shipping containers for electronics, bottled beverages and light bulbs, Crump said. Recycling is another popular strategy for reducing packaging waste.

“Recycling is the cornerstone of our operation,” Crump said. “All our raw material is post-consumer newsprint, and our products are 100 percent recyclable and biodegradable.”

Crump said demand for molded paper pulp packaging is rising, in part because some state legislatures have enacted restrictions on disposal of synthetic packaging materials. In Europe, where packaging is subject to environmental impact fees, molded paper pulp is one of the least-expensive materials.

“It’s definitely a growth area,” he said. “Companies develop new molding techniques all the time, so you can do practically anything with the material. The packaging industry needs people with vision to keep building on these innovations.”

Kenneth Berger said many university programs solicit project ideas from companies with specific packaging needs.

“It’s a win-win situation, because the companies get solutions to their problems while students get realistic work experience,” he said. “Packaging technology has become so advanced that employers prefer people with specialized degrees.”