In early February, a coalition of consumer-products makers and packagers came out with their own guidelines for "green" marketing: the use of terms such as biodegradeable and recycled material on package labels.
It was the latest effort by industry to appear more environmentally friendly. At the forefront of the green issue is packaging: By some estimates, a third of what goes into landfills is packaging.
The need for greener packaging means that packaging experts have employment virtually guaranteed. With only about 900 packaging undergraduates nationwide, schools say that companies are recruiting on campus and that there are two job offers for every graduate.
"We've had the luxury of looking at packaging as a necessary evil until we got into this waste management crisis we're in," says John Stead, a professor who coordinates the packaging program at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
Now companies are responding to both consumer demand and the threat of government intervention by trying to produce less wasteful ways of protecting their products.
"Because the companies don't want government intervention, they're working like mad to solve the problems themselves," says Robert Jorgensen, an executive recruiter who specializes in packaging.
"Packaging is almost a service industry," notes Paul Germeraad, director of flexible packaging for James River Corp., which is making the replacement for the defunct McDonald's polystyrene clamshell. When customers demand environmentally friendly packaging, "it drives the industry to create a package to meet that goal."
In the past, packaging designers have come from many disciplines: engineering, chemistry, even graphic communications. But as companies make environmental issues a priority, true specialists in packaging are more in demand.
"Corporate needs people who are informed," says Cal Poly's Stead. "It needs people who can make decisions and give input as to what is feasible and what is not and what the issues are. Right now they don't have these people."
Indeed, schools have not yet caught up with the demand: San Jose State University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo are the only two schools in the western United States that have packaging programs. Nationwide, there are only about a dozen university programs.
"The West is where the action is, and people who know packaging aren't here," Stead says. "We see nothing but increasing demand as companies try to be responsible citizens."
Cal Poly offers a minor in packaging that's teamed with a major in a related discipline such as food science, graphic communications, business, chemistry or mechanical engineering.
"Our experience is that demand far exceeds supply," says Robert Testin, director of the school of packaging at Clemson University in South Carolina. "Recruiters do come to campus specifically to talk to packaging majors." Clemson offers a bachelor of science in packaging science.
"Typically we have two job openings for every graduate," says Harold Hughes, head of the packaging science school at Michigan State University, which has the country's largest packaging program, with about 650 undergraduates.
Because of the shortage of packaging professionals, Cal Poly, for the fourth year, is putting on a packaging, plastics and recycling symposium that will include 40 to 50 people from the packaging industry, Stead says.
There are some notes of caution, however. Germeraad, of James River, sees flat employment in the field overall.
"The packaging industry is mimicking the food industry in terms of consolidation," he says. He believes that the need is not so much for more packaging specialists, but specialists with better training.
"If you look at it from a technical perspective," Germeraad says, "the people who do packaging design, it is really useful to bring them out of a packaging school."
"We take the long-term view in terms of packaging education," Stead says. "If you look at the middle schools and high schools in particular, they have been teaching technology education and, within the curriculum, they teach the manufacturing process. They teach how products are designed but not the packaging part of it. As a result, we have people completing their education ignorant of packaging."
The field has changed.
Now a typical dilemma that packagers face is the standard plastic bottle. While the bottle itself is made of one type of plastic, the cap is made of another and it might have a paper label. "When that bottle goes into recycling," says Germeraad of James River, "you have to get the paper and the cap out."
The original designer was never involved with the question of recycling, he says. The answer is to design an acceptable bottle out of one material.
"The need for designing environmentally acceptable packaging is one of the strategic trends for the next decade," Testin says. "One thing we often tell students is that the ideal package would weigh nothing and take up zero volume. We want them to approach that ideal as closely as possible while retaining or not dramatically changing the package's ability to do its job--that is, protect the product."
Ed Church is president of Lansmont Corp., which makes testing equipment for packaging. He is a 1968 graduate of the Michigan State packaging school.
"I chose packaging at Michigan State. It was really exposure to other people. My best friend from high school went into the field. Packaging was very interesting. It's technical but not too technical. I wasn't gung-ho enough to go into engineering. The diversity of the field is fascinating and there are all kinds of opportunities for graduates. At Michigan State, the packaging school was a nice little family."