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Civil Rights To Sustainability: Atlantic Packaging Continues Its Mission Of Leading Change

Atlantic Packaging creates fiber-based alternative packaging, like the packaging for this surfboard, to help reduce plastic waste and increase recycling. Image courtesy Atlantic Packaging

“Our mission is very personal to me,” said Wes Carter, President of Atlantic Packaging. Based in Wilmington, North Carolina, the company today provides equipment, materials, engineering and service for consumer-destined and B2B packaging solutions, with a heavy focus on sustainable packaging. Atlantic has over 30 facilities and more than 1,500 employees.

Part of the mission that’s so personal to Carter goes back to Atlantic’s roots. The company was founded in 1946 by an idealistic journalist, W. Horace Carter–Wes Carter’s grandfather–as Atlantic Publishing, which published The Tabor City Tribune, a weekly newspaper in Tabor City, North Carolina. Almost from its start the paper tangled with the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, waging a two-year battle with a series of editorials against the group. Despite death threats, vandalism and financial boycotts, the fledgling paper won in the end, exposing the group’s members and helping send dozens of offenders to prison. The Tabor City Tribune won the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for those efforts.

In the 1960s, the publishing house expanded its business to include printing, paper converting and the distribution of office supplies. Under the leadership of Wes’s father, Rusty Carter, this was followed in the 1970s by the addition of industrial supplies to the mix, to serve what was then a large textiles business in the southeast states. The 1990s saw the expansion into industrial packaging automation and integration, as well as a greater focus on technical service support from Atlantic’s growing network of branch locations. And it’s in recent years that the company has become heavily focused on sustainability in packaging.

Scott, Rusty, and Wes Carter (l to r) of Atlantic Packaging. Image courtesy Atlantic Packaging

Carter sees parallels between Atlantic’s modern quest to improve the natural environment and the company’s early civil rights activism. “There’s an interesting synergy between what my grandfather did and what we’re doing now,” he said. “But the big difference is, nobody’s trying to kill me.”

Still, that part of the job is also personal to him. “I’m an Eagle Scout, hunter, fisherman, backpacker and surfer,” he said. “I spent a lot of time traveling to places like Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and Indonesia. The differences now versus 20 years ago are sometimes staggering. People in packaging need to take responsibility to make sure there’s an avenue where the material doesn’t wind up in the environment.”

With its integrated solutions offerings, Atlantic can help customers with their packaging from start to finish, assisting with packaging and equipment design, testing, and supply of the best materials and configurations. “We help our customers utilize packaging more efficiently,” said Carter.

One of the biggest focus areas is the elimination of plastic wherever possible. “There’s no place for single-use plastic in consumer packaging,” Carter continued. “We have natural, fiber-based options for most applications. We get it from a sustainable source, and we use fiber that we recycle really well in this country. The transition of all single-use consumer packaging to fiber in the next three to five years is completely do-able.”

Two additional challenges remain for the near future: stretch film that’s used to hold pallets of product together, and food packaging. “On the B2B side of our business, the top item is stretch film,” said Carter. “We need to eliminate that waste now– there’s about two and half billion pounds a year going to landfill. We need to find a way to close that loop. We bought a machine in Europe, an Erema, and created a singular lane for recycling stretch film. It produces clean recycled material that looks like virgin plastic.”

An industrial worker loads waste stretch film into a baler to collect it for recycling. Image courtesy Atlantic Packaging

The challenge is completely different for food packaging. “For food containers, there are real food safety concerns,” Carter explained. “I’m not going to be the first guy eating chicken that was packaged in a fiber container! So here, compostable materials make more sense. Curbside composting is the solution–it needs to be just as common as a trash can. Bio-films from sustainable, non-GMO sources are another great potential solution, too.”

Carter sees Atlantic’s focus on all this as a very viable way to grow the business. “Every major consumer products company and retail brand is looking at their suppliers to help deliver their sustainability goals, especially their packaging suppliers,” he said. “Whether it’s Kellogg’s or P&G, I am their Scope 3 [indirect CO2 emissions that are part of the corporate environmental footprint]. Because of our commitment to sustainability and carbon neutrality, companies are thrilled to do business with us. We’ve never had a greater catalyst for growing our business. We’re able to transform our customers’ sustainability profiles in very short order.”

He sees the opportunities as endless. “Surfboard packaging doesn’t really move the needle,” he said. “But when we delivered the first fiber surfboard package, that was a lot of fun. But then look at toilets–they’re all packaged with Styrofoam. That’s a big deal, so if we can transition all that to fiber packaging, it’s a huge environmental impact.”

When everything is said and done, it really all becomes personal for him. “Sustainability is not a fad,” he concluded. “I have twins who are eight years old. I want to take them surfing, hunting and fishing, but I’m terrified of the world we might be leaving them. I’m in a position of influence where I can help make the change happen. This has given me a direction for my life. My grandfather had to feel the same way. I understand his drive more than ever before.”

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