SALT LAKE CITY — As e-commerce giants scramble to retreat from plastic packaging amid a torrent of reports highlighting environmental degradation related to the material, a local cardboard packaging innovator may be set to explode.
On Wednesday, officials from the U.S. Department of Energy and over 100 members of the agency’s Clean Cities Coalitions from around the country toured the world headquarters of Packsize on Salt Lake City’s west side.
Packsize is on the collective radars of many observers thanks to the accomplishments of founder and CEO Hanko Kiessner. The German-born entrepreneur, who adopted Utah as his home after falling in love with the state during an exchange student experience in the ’80s, has embraced the dual goals of offering a highly sustainable and earth-friendly product alongside a commitment to creating company facilities with a light-touch carbon footprint.
The 17-year-old company has innovated a system that employs artificial intelligence-driven software and a family of automated box-building machinery to allow customers to create exactly the right size box for any one, or group of, products for shipping. And do it very, very quickly.
Kiessner noted e-commerce companies were trending away from cardboard, with about 30 percent of all shipments currently happening in plastic packaging, until a recent seismic shift that was seeded by the work of both scientists and journalists.
“It’s now universally understood and decided among the internet retailing industry that packaging has to fit,” Kiessner said. “And not only does it have to fit, but it needs to be made of the right materials.”
Kiessner said just a few years ago, before islands of plastic in the oceans and seemingly ubiquitous microplastic contamination was highlighted by the scientific community and, subsequently, media outlets, companies could rationalize the switch from paper to plastic. But, not any more.
“When the ocean plastic, microplastic topic wasn’t front and center, you could argue maybe that was a tradeoff decision,” Kiessner said. “Today, we know that that trend has to be completely reversed. We have to get out of plastics again, out of plastic mailers.
“They’re not recyclable, they’re not decomposable, we’re finding microplastics in the polar caps, in sea life, and almost everywhere. Next to global warming, this could be another major disaster.”
Packsize boxes are made with the company’s “z-fold” corrugated cardboard, which Kiessner said is sourced from sustainably managed forests and the fibers can be recycled up to 12 times. At the end of that life cycle, the product is entirely biodegradable, but can also be incinerated as an energy-producing source.
How big a deal is right-sizing packaging for the e-commerce world? Kiessner said on an annual basis, if the global shipping market only shipped in appropriately-sized packages, it would save 98 million trees, reduce truck hauling by 24 million loads, and save 1.7 billion gallons of diesel. He said a typical e-commerce package is 40 percent larger than it needs to be.
On arrival at Packsize’s headquarters in Salt Lake City, a notable visual characteristic is the multiple rows of electric vehicle charging stations in front of the building. Kiessner said the array, installed in late 2017, includes 51 standard charging stations and 2 D.C. fast-chargers. The project, which included support from the DOE, Rocky Mountain Power, Utah Clean Cities and others, is the largest of its kind in the state.
Kiessner said the efforts to be a force for change track back to his decision just a few years ago to keep the company in Utah. It was one he said challenged him at multiple levels, particularly after developing asthma due to local air quality issues.
“Air pollution was the only thing between us and the perfect place,” Kiessner said. “We were this close to moving out of the valley ... moving out of the state. We decided to move into this building, because we understood at the time there is a solution to the problem that depends only on our own will, and leadership, to activate the method.”
Kiessner and Packsize have embraced that will, adding further incentives to the free-to-employees charging stations by adding a financial incentive for electric vehicle purchases of almost $1,000 per year, as well as converting environmental systems to a high-efficiency heat pump system.
Tammie Bostwick, executive director of Utah Clean Cities, said her organization was hosting a three-day event to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Clean Cities Coalition program. She noted her organization, under the umbrella of the DOE, was working to help more Utah businesses follow the path Packsize has chosen to help mitigate the state’s leading cause of air pollution issues — combustion engine vehicles.
“This is an effort Clean Cities supported ... and we’re working to build more workplace charging locations in the state,” Bostwick said. “It’s the kind of work we’re celebrating with our 25th anniversary gathering in Salt Lake City.”
Correction: An earlier version misspelled the last name of Packsize CEO Hanko Kiessner as Keisnner.