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Packaging leader Amcor makes transformative gift to Michigan State University School of Packaging

MSU School of Packaging Chair Matt Daum in front of the Packaging Building
Derrick L. Turner
Matt Daum, Ph.D., Director of the School of Packaging

A $10 million gift from Switzerland-based packaging innovator Amcor to the Michigan State University School of Packaging will establish an endowed faculty position focused on sustainability, and support renovations to the school of packaging building. The contribution is the largest corporate gift in history for the College of Agriculture & Natural Resources, home to the School of Packaging.

“We're investing $10.8 million in the partnership,” says Fred Stephan, president of Amcor Flexibles North America. “The partnership will create an endowed chair of sustainability professorship. The chair will conduct research into sustainability in the circular economy. In combination with that, we're also contributing towards some necessary building renovations that will offer students a modern facility and access to state-of-the-art technology. And it really is part and parcel of our ongoing strategy of open innovation as we strive to develop more sustainable packaging.”

Amcor's Fred Stephan
Fred Stephan, president of Amcor Flexibles North America

“Amcor is really excited about growing our partnership with MSU for a couple of reasons,” adds Eric Roegner, president of Amcor Rigid Packaging. “At the heart of what Amcor is is innovation. That's how we've survived for 140 years. It's by constantly innovating the state of the art of technology that's allowed us to do that. There is so much opportunity out there that as we continue to look for the right set of partners to work with, you guys are the best. You have the biggest school for this.

"You graduate the most folks into the space. We have, the last time we checked, about 75 MSU grads active inside of our population. We know that this partnership will drive continued innovation across sustainability and across that ecosystem for us as well as for the world. We need an ecosystem of players to come together. We're a big player, the largest producer of rigid packaging in that space. But you guys are right there in the middle with everyone. You have MSU grads in just about every consumer-packaged good player and every packaging provider out there. You have a network of incredible people who are driving that innovation. We just see this as being a win-win across the whole ecosystem.”

Matt Daum is the director of the MSU School of Packaging.“I can't overstate the importance of this gift and what it's going to mean to our school,” says Daum. “We're really at a critical juncture in the history of the school. And I can't be more thrilled to partner with a global leader like Amcor. We've talked and thought and visioned for many, many years about how do we take the school of packaging to the next level, and how do we prepare for the future? And this gift is going to do that.

"It's really going to help continue our separation from other packaging programs and keep us in a preeminent position.”

Stephan, Roegner, and Daum elaborate on how Amcor and the MSU School of Packaging define sustainability.

Amcor's Eric Roegner
Eric Roegner, president of Amcor Rigid Packaging

“We love plastic; we hate plastic waste,” says Roegner. “And one of our missions is to make sure that as soon as humanly possible, every one of our bottles is made out of 100 percent post-consumer resin. And after we make that bottle and the consumer uses it, they put the cap back on, it goes back, and 100 percent of them get recycled back in. We want to minimize the effect that our products have on the environment. And we are absolutely convinced that we're at the forefront with the most sustainable package by any metric.”

“We've made a pledge for our packaging to be reusable or recyclable by 2025,” says Stephan. “And what we're really talking about is packaging that truly can be recycled or reused. That's how we're defining sustainable packaging. We've made substantial progress in that area as well. Close to 70 percent of our packaging is already recycled across the Amcor portfolio. We're working to close that gap between now and 2025. And the way we think about it is it's really a three-legged stool. We've got the product piece of it. We've got the infrastructure to actually be able to recycle. And then we've got behaviors, and we need people to actually take products to the right bin to be able to recycle. If we get all three of those in that three-legged stool in place, we're going to be making a lot of progress across the country.”

“Sustainability and trying to purposely and intentionally design your packaging to be more sustainable is now a customer expectation,” Daum adds. “It's a business imperative. Companies now don't have a choice but to really address this and be purposeful about it. We teach a material neutral perspective. Sustainability is built into our curriculum in most of the classes. This is where Amcor and MSU really have a similar vision and a similar commitment to doing what's right for the environment.“That's why this partnership really fits well. It's not necessarily that there's bad packaging, there are bad packaging applications. You've got to have recycling facilities and infrastructure. You need to have waste management companies bought in. You've got to have your legislation all lined up. It's a very intricate problem. You can't solve it with just one specific solution. Part of the motivation behind this endowed chair is that we have a voice that thinks systematically and that thinks across the whole ecosystem, the whole value chain, and can bring a data-driven perspective into the conversation and help facilitate this partnership that has to happen between a lot of different places in order to have long-term solutions.”

Daum says more about the impact the gift will have on the school.

“We need to upgrade our facilities. We really need to match the facilities that we have with the leadership that we produce. But our facilities are quite dated. The last renovation was back in 1987. There were no cell phones then. There were no laptops. The way that classes were taught is different than today's needs. And we really want to create and update our facilities so that we're giving our students an environment that better matches what they're going to see when they go into industry. We also want the space to be a hub, a place where thought leaders from industry, government agencies, and NGOs feel like this is the place to be. This is the place to come when you can come and gather and talk about solving some of the great packaging and sustainability challenges.

“The building renovation in particular is about modernizing what we have. We want to continue to keep pace with the industry. The industry's growing 3 to 4 percent a year. And we know that we're going to have to eventually grow as well. But this phase one really is about bringing the level up of our current facility to make it what it needs to be. The other part of the gift is going to be given for an endowed chair position. And this is really critical. There's a certain element when you have an endowed position where you're saying to the academic community and to industry that this is a really important area. That's what we want to create here in the area of sustainable packaging.”

Daum describes the three key areas the endowed chair will focus on: research, teaching, and outreach – consistent with MSU’s land grant mission.

“We are convinced that in partnering with MSU, that we can promote and actually accelerate thought leadership in this space,” Roegner adds. “We need more. There's much more innovation to be had, and we think MSU is the place that's going to drive that. And we're just glad to be able to partner with you, both in that chair for the professorship as well as helping out with the facilities in the building. And this is going to be just a start of a relationship. And I'm looking forward to the next 75 MSU grads that we're going to get, bringing you all into our technology centers, letting us work with you on the whole spectrum of different opportunities out there. Because, we have to crack the code on this. When I talk to my kids about what I do and how proud I am to be here, in today's generation, sometimes packaging of any type gets a bad name for a variety of reasons.“I say, Really? You really want to move the needle? You really want to help the environment and make a real difference in greenhouse gas emissions or whatever it is, then this is your answer. Solve the packaging problem. Figure out how to get every one of these PET bottles recycled and then made out of a hundred percent PCR. That will do more to help the environment than just about any other activity that you can engage in anywhere. If you want to move the needle, this is where you do it. MSU is right at the forefront of that.”

“We've made a commitment to the environment, and our commitment is to transform the sustainability of flexible packaging,” Stephan adds. “And we see that combining our efforts and the real-world experience we have at Amcor working with many diverse customers around the world with the academic world and all of the talents at Michigan State can really help us accelerate our efforts to bring sustainable packaging solutions to everyone. The partnership offers us access to the MSU talent and bright minds working on how to make the world a better place. It's going to take all of us working together to make progress in this area. It's not just one single group of companies or constituencies. It's everyone working together to really advance the cause.”

Daum describes challenges and opportunities facing the packaging industry, and he says packaging is a major for students who want to combine skills and interests in a way that can directly impact the environment.“We call it a discovery major because usually people find it once they get here. It’s a unique major for this reason. It blends creativity with engineering and material science, and it has business in it as well. It's this very interesting combination where you're creating things that people see, touch, and feel. And you are able to directly have an impact on the environment.

“When you're designing packaging for a company, you're front and center with customers and how they view sustainability and the environment, and you can have great impact. And we have very high starting salaries. We have one of the higher starting salaries in the university. We have students go to almost all the fortune 500 companies. We have students at Tesla, Apple, Pepsi, you name it, and there's probably an MSU packaging grad in those companies. It’s a fantastic way to combine a lot of different interests into something that is creative, and visible, and tangible, and usually you'll find yourself having a great career in packaging.”

In summarizing the importance of Amcor's gift to the MSU school of packaging, Daum says he hopes this is the first of many partnerships between the school and industry.

“First of all, I want to say a huge thank you to Amcor. This is just really unprecedented in terms of the size. It means a lot that they would think that highly of our program and our school. Hats off to them. The gift really shows a leadership perspective and vision, and we want to make good on that. The other thing it does is it really demonstrates the kind of partnership that we want to have and that we need to have with industry. If we're going to continue to be the premier program, and if we're going to continue to grow and develop students that the industry needs, then I'm hoping that this is just the start of many kinds of partnerships that we can have with industry that really create a robust long-term program that meets the needs for students, and for our faculty, and for the companies that our students go work for.”

“We need to groom and train and enable the next generation of leaders, not just in packaging, but in all of sustainability and the circular economy,” Roegner adds. “MSU is at the forefront of that. Being able to contribute and play our part in developing that next generation of leaders is huge. And it gives us all a great amount of satisfaction. It's one of the things we can help give back as a leader in the industry Let's enable the future.”

“I want to also offer a big shout out to all of our Michigan State alumni,” says Stephan. “Thank you for all of your efforts. Hopefully this demonstrates our commitment to the legacy that you're creating at Amcor, and we look forward to recruiting much more in the future from Michigan State.”

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Russ White is producer and host of "MSU Today," a lively look at MSU people, places, events and attitudes.