Reuse not recycle

packaging Oct 6, 2021

Interview with Keir Steinke,

Ex-Unilever Vice President R&D Europe | Ex-Unilever Vice President R&D Greater China East Asia/Anz | Ex-Unilever Vice President R&D HPC Latin America

Keir Steinke was Europe's Vice President of Research and Development Operations. He was in charge of the Technical Management/ Operational Excellence resource for the European and CEE countries. He was in charge of both the global Consumer Technical Insight team and the global Specification program. He was also in charge of Unilever's Greater China and East Asia Research and Development resource base (900 people) in the Foods and Home and Personal Care categories in Greater China, Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines.

How did it start?

I am a biochemist, by training. I focused on plant biochemistry. Interestingly enough, I started my carrier in packaging, which directly had nothing to do with biochemistry. The philosophy of the company Unilever that employed me was that I proved myself in terms of intellectual capability by studying biochemistry at university. They wanted to see how I could use my mind in different ways in different scenarios so they put me into packaging. I started by designing and developing margarine packaging and cheese packaging. That’s when it all started and then I really enjoyed packaging. I found it very interactive, engaging, logical, exciting (all the things that I was looking for). So, I continued in packaging and continued to specialize in packaging, moving into detergent packaging and then into personal care packaging. Then from there into specialized parts of the packaging, including label production, printing, and quite lots of specialization of packaging. To really understand the processes of packaging and how to get the most out of them. My first seven to eight years were focused on packaging in South Africa with Unilever across multiple categories. I then had a break from Unilever and went into marketing, so I worked in a point of sale promotional advertising agency. I really got involved in quite a lot of the technical side of printing and packaging, which again was very exciting. So designing the Point of sale material packaging in the retail industry. So exciting displays for packaging which again was very interesting and provided a very different perspective for me in packaging as well. Then I came back to Unilever and focused on personal care packaging and I was very much the interface between the R&D team and the supply chain team when I came to packaging. So the manufacturer of the packaging and the filling and the packing of the packaging. So how does that all work from the R&D and supply chain point of view? I got very good experience, I was very much involved in the blow molders, injection molders, glass manufactures and that again gave me a lot of insights into packaging, and the way it was made and used. Then after that, I started to sort of branch out a little bit more of my career and started to work not only in packaging but also in other functions in R&D so product developments, process development, consumer technical insights, and then again all of that helped me get a greater perspective and understanding of the role of packaging in delivering a product to a consumer. I also worked in different categories in Unilever. For example, from deodorants which are very complex in terms of the Can design, the valve, the actuator to very simple packaging, i.e. a cardboard box for a detergent. So, a very broad range of packaging provided me with a lot of understanding of different packaging forms and different packaging types. And then obviously in different continents as well, you know people’s approach to packaging, what they are looking for in terms of packaging design, what supplies are available; all gave me even further insights and perspectives into packaging. So that was very much focused on the fast-moving consumer goods environment, which gives you a very good cross-section of the packaging industry. Then I moved into Estee Lauder, which was very much high-end packaging, where cost was less of an issue but quality and attention to details, different finishes, conversion processes, and all sorts of intriguing elements of packaging. In Estee Lauder, you can pay up to 250$ to 300$ a jar of face cream so your budget when it comes to packaging is significantly higher than for example working in moving fast consumer goods. So, it gave me an insight into the role of packaging and what you could do in the packaging of high-end consumer goods. Then from there, I moved into foods to focus on foods in Vietnam. That was on the other end of the scale, where we were asking consumers to pay less than 25 US cents for a packet of instant noodles. You had to balance cost and quality, so it falls again across a range of packaging different types of packaging i.e. flexible glass, plastic, etc. I would say I had very broad exposure to the packaging industry from low-cost low end to high-cost high-end. And always at the front of this, it’s the consumer first so it has to be consumer-relevant and the functionality must be good for the consumer as well. That’s why the marketing department usually works with the packaging department and the coordination between the departments is to ensure that the packaging does satisfy the consumer demands in that particular niche.

Future of packaging and design of the Packages?

Packaging plays a crucial role in delivering the product to the consumer. In terms of making, it appealing for the consumer to buy, preserving the product, and then in many cases actually using the product. So that role of packaging obviously needs to continue, that I think the area that packaging needs to focus on more is personalized packaging. I think personalized packaging is going to be more and more important. So, people are going to be looking for packaging that’s personalized. Not for all kinds of packaging, packaging as delivery to individuals can become more personalized or will become more personalized. I think packaging will and must become more intelligent. And what I mean by that is intelligent in terms of the way it presents the product and the way it which preserves the product, for example, a cap of a yogurt color, so if it’s been above a certain temperature, it should change color to indicates to the consumer that shelf life of this product won’t be as much as it should be. Intelligent in terms of the way that it’s reused, to make it more sustainable. The third and important point in designing is the packaging must be reusable and recyclable. And I emphasize perhaps more on reusable than perhaps recyclable. So, I think multi-use packaging, smart packaging; and this goes back to intelligence. Multi-use packaging needs to be perhaps more serious when it comes to design. So, for me these are the three elements;

  • Personalized
  • Intelligent
  • Reusable and recyclable

Artificial intelligence and Designing

I think we can learn a lot perhaps from about consumer behavior with artificial intelligence. I mean you have things like eye-tracking devices and now you can put them into a markup supermarket, and you can put different forms of packaging in front of them and you can see which types of packaging the eyes go to first for example or which types of packaging are they drawn to first from a design point of view. These sorts of tools can and are being used to really understand the consumer interface with packaging, at a level that we have never seen before.

Impact of Research and Development in any company

R&D is a source of new technology and new ideas in terms of working with suppliers and partners to find interesting new technologies and interesting new solutions to existing or old problems. But I think R&D on its own cannot achieve all of that. So, I think R&D working with the supply chain and marketing department delivers maximum value to the business. The coordination of the supply chain department and the marketing with the research and development is important in order to ensure that the greatest impact could be brought about. I call that the golden triangle of the packaging. Because any one of them missing, and you are not going to deliver the optimum package.

Does the progress of the R&D in packaging is in line with the growth of the market?

I think in terms of delivering packaging for the market growth? Yes! Delivering sustainable packaging for the growth of the market? No. I think I would say the packaging is coming up with new ideas, new polymers, new decoration, and new materials, which are great but I don’t think they have done enough so far when it comes to the whole sustainability agenda. Packaging is tended to be more responsive versus reactive. I think only now is packaging becoming more responsive to the challenge versus reactive. They have waited for consumer pressure or government pressure before they’ve changed instead of going up and changing ahead of the curve. It’s now working towards the sustainable solution it ‘self proactively. Then they’ve to own the sustainability agenda proactively.

What are some of the ideas and innovative processes that you introduced during your time at Unilever?

The area where I had the most impact was the golden triangle connecting the supply chain, marketing, and R&D. I was focused on making the three departments in line. I ensured coordination between the three departments. Technology is as great as the people implementing, designing, and inventing it. So, for me by delivering through people was always at the top of the list. Connect the people, get the people to talk, get the people to work together and you get 1+1=3. So, for me, that was a key area that I focused on and also looking for synergies within a very complex organization so peeling away the layers of the onion and looking for synergies and again for me, the equation was always 1+1=3. And in an organization like Unilever, all the knowledge and expertise and everything that we got, if the answer is 1+1=2, that’s not good enough. In order to ensure better results and to ensure that the customers’ needs are met in a better way. I’m always looking to do things in a better way. Making sure that innovation flows through the company. So in a matrixed organization like Unilever, the number of the people to tick boxes, and a number of people to approve things, had to flow from the center to the region to the country and again creating a good flow of innovation from the source of innovation to point of execution was the key area that I focused on.

How would you describe your experience as Vice President - R&D, Product Innovation and Packaging Development APAC?

My key role there was bringing China to Unilever. One of my biggest roles there was to set up a 50+ Million Euros R&D center in Shanghai, which involved many R&D functions and many different R&D categories so that was the first for Unilever to put personal care, research development all in one building with four hundred scientists. With a building like that Unilever got involved in various innovation projects and also it’s still working on new innovative technologies. One of my legacies there was to set up a center up and running. So we built it, we populated it, and we started delivering products from this center for Unilever globally.

What is the role of innovation roadmap in the field of packaging?

These days an innovation roadmap in the field of packaging is essential. Otherwise, companies like Unilever certainly fell into the trap and some years ago innovating for the sake of innovating. So, every two or three years, the consumer would be presented with a different piece of packaging or different design for the same product. And actually, the consumer is starting to tell us why are you doing this? We are happy with the current Dove bottle or the current design and we don’t need a new one. Innovating for the sake of innovating to keep the marketers busy is the wrong approach or because you have the new piece of technology trying to force it into customer’s hands without it necessarily being relevant is not the right strategy. Innovation roadmap is really critical, you can understand what technologies are out there, what are being developed. Do those technologies have an application in your portfolio or not. If they do have a role, then you work hard to get that technology into your portfolio. If it doesn’t have a role in it then ignore it. Don’t fiddle around with it.

What are the Challenges that Concern the packaging Industry?

The whole issue of sustainability is in an area that must be worrying quite a lot of companies because the whole issue of climate change is being raised on the global agenda, aggressive targets are being set and it’s going to impact everybody, sooner or later. I think people have been able to hide under the table as it were, saying it’s not our problem, it's Unilever’s problem because they’re the ones that sell the bottle full of ice tea so it’s their problem when the bottle is washed up on the shore. So now Unilever actually says is that it’s not just our problem it’s everyone’s problem, it’s the bottle manufacture problem, it’s the cap manufacture problem, it’s the label manufacture problem. We all have to work together. I think for me one of the crucial challenges is the whole issue of circular economy and sustainability and in the process of designing, developing, and packaging, how do you take the consumer along with you? Because there have to be some significant consumer habit changes. When you ask a consumer to reuse a piece of packaging that they’ve never reused in their life before, it’s going to involve a habit change. I think the whole issue of recyclability, sustainability, reusability, packaging, circular economy, and how you take the consumer with you is an area that companies need to be focusing on.

What is the importance of making the packaging more environmentally friendly and sustainable?

There are three roots to this question. There’s an issue of recycling packaging and I think that continues to be an overstated solution cause recycling is difficult because you get multiple packaging with multiple layers, packaging with two-faced structures, etc. so recycling is not easy as it’s made up to be and I think there’s a challenge there on how we create packaging more recycling-friendly. There’re three things to focus on recyclability, reusability, and decomposability. Environmentally friendly packaging for example Pepsi has just launched a crisped bag that will decompose in an industrial dumpsite. It will decompose into something that’s not micro plastic, it will decompose into something beneficial for the environment. The environmental cost of the packaging material is high. They have to be focused on reusability, recyclability, and bio-degradation. It’ll continue to get worse. We live in a throw-away environment. The thing that horrifies me is that the packaging industry is coming to terms with this. The thing that horrifies for example is the children’s toys and the gimmick toys that are invented like these puppets, the things that are invented like crazes and now they are just throwing away. I think people are starting to look into the whole impact of the material use and is it sustainable and is it the right thing to do. Another thing which is a little bit irrelevant just to give some idea of where people minds are going, in Europe thinking of the forcing of the mobile phone manufacturers that come up with a single charging device for all mobile phones, for example for Apple, for Samsung all of them to have one charging port. It’s all waste. Like in my household I have got an apple, my wife got Samsung, my son got another phone, so we have to buy three charging devices. If you had one charging port it won’t be much of a problem. People are thinking more about the impact of materials, the usable material on the environment and that’s the packaging industry continues doing that in a very aggressive way.

What are the latest trends in innovation that you see being implemented in the coming 3 years? How do you keep up with industry trends?

The three elements that I mentioned before are personalization, intelligence and the reusability and recyclability, trends innovation, and packaging you are going to see in the next three to five years. I think probably reusability and recyclability are going to be pushed harder, intelligence next, and probably personalization last. The issue for me is forming partnerships with lead supplies, lead universities, lead institutes that are really looking at future technology. So, it’s no good to focus on a good supplier of packaging material or having a good marketing team, or working with a good industrial designer. I think this goes back to the point raised earlier on having a roadmap. You’ve got to go way up to more in front of the packaging design process. Perhaps engaging people at a molecular level so universities thinking of a new polymer, for example, some companies have been working with the coating suppliers to design a coating that could be applied at the inside of the packaging that would be completely nonstick, completely non-hydrophobic. Imagine how useful it would be in reusable packages.

As a community leader in Porto for Hubbers community and one of the leading experts on innovative packaging groups, what can you bring to startups and bigger companies?

I can provide a global perspective. Many startups perhaps are focused locally while they could grow faster and more effectively on a more global scale with a focus on a global level. With the help of somebody like myself so helping them to connect the dots when it comes to innovation. They’ll start to benefit from me from a global perspective. Instead of focusing just on their own country, they’ll be able to target a more global and international market. Also, from a cross-functional perspective, I’ll be helping them to link the dots within the organization and form partnerships and alliances with other companies that will drive their innovation perspective more effectively. They’ll perhaps then have the necessary connections and necessary perspectives and a 360-degree approach to innovational launching their new product. They’ll be more focused on getting their product out in the market and getting their technology out in the market. And a person like me can provide a 360-degree view on the innovation process and getting their innovation to market by using more collaborative working, using connections. They’ll also be benefiting from the connections that I have and they’ll be able to collaborate with the international organization with me and that’ll change their whole startup. I think just because of my understanding of fast-moving goods in the industry if that’s an area they are interested in. For example, I can add a lot of value if that’s the part of the industry they are interested in. It does not have to be fast-moving consumer goods. It could be packing a TV or anything. I am passionate about packaging and innovation and I’ll bring some passion to their business and some energy and positive motivation because sometimes startups hit the wall and perhaps somebody with experience and who has seen these things can often be a stabling factor in a crazy startup environment.

Keir is hosting the Porto Hubbers community, you can join Porto community here.

If you are a professional/expert/creator or investor in the packaging industry, you can join Hubbers group on packing/packaging topic (here if you are already registered) or sign up as a packaging expert . Keir will be happy to have you.

Have a project that requires Keir skills, you can find him on the expert marketplace.


Hubbers Team

co-writing stories about Hubbers creators, experts and investors co-building a better tomorrow.

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