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Industry Advisory Group for the New M.S. in Sustainable Packaging

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CPULD and SBIO are in the process of developing a M.S. in Sustainable Packaging. This is a professional degree that specifically targets industry professionals. Many of today's leading industry companies have a strong focus on sustainability, so you might know somebody who would like to be included in the stakeholder group who will be advising us on degree development.

It is not a lot of commitment, the goal is to help us make sure that the skillset that we will provide to the students is something that is needed in the industry. There are already 20 major companies in this advisory group including Pepsi Co, General Mills, Seventh Generation, Sabra, and more. 

Industry Advisory Group for new degree program

Throughout August, 2022, we have arranged two Kick-Off Meetings for the MS in Sustainable Packaging's new Advisory Group. We want and need our industry partners' input in the design of this new graduate degree. The ultimate goal is to better-prepare our students to join the workforce as sustainability-minded packaging designers, engineers, and more. These discussion groups will cover topics/questions such as:

  • Do you see the field of packaging changing due to new sustainability requirements? Could you describe some of the trends and changes you’ve noticed? How do you perceive the importance of sustainable packaging changing in the next decade? 
  • Do you see a need for a professional degree in sustainable packaging and management? If so, what characteristics would differentiate a degree in sustainable packaging from existing degrees in areas such as packaging design, packaging engineering, and sustainability?
  • If you currently work in an area that develops and implements sustainable packaging solutions, what are the main challenges that you experience in your role? 
  • From your perspective, what skills and competencies are currently needed for professionals to successfully design and implement sustainable packaging systems? How do you see these skills and competencies changing over the next decade?


Prospective M.S. in Sustainable Packaging

The College of Natural Resources and Environment (CNRE) at Virginia Tech is interested in developing a new Master of Science (M.S.) degree in Sustainable Packaging. Following University governance and State approval, we anticipate offering this degree by the fall of 2024 or 2025. Currently, we are not aware of any institution in the U.S. or other countries that offer a graduate degree program designed around a transdisciplinary approach to sustainable packaging area.

The need to transition to a more sustainable and equitable global society is an issue of increasing focus and concern in academic, industry, and policy spheres. The concept of ‘decoupling’ has become a central pillar of the sustainability movement, emphasizing the need for industry solutions that can reduce environmental damage caused by consumption and production, without reducing the vital economic and social benefits that are derived from economic growth. Decoupling can be achieved in many ways, but the core principles call for meaningful design-for-environment (DfE), product and packaging stewardship, and infrastructure for the recovery and valorization of materials and products. Challenges of material scarcity, increasing regulation, and consumer demand for transparent value chains now place increasing pressure on companies to more responsibly manage their products and packaging throughout its entire life-cycle, from origin, through to end-of-life.

Around the world, mandated and voluntary sustainability initiatives are emerging to guide this global transformation of product and packaging systems, including but not limited to: Voluntary industry commitments (e.g., New Plastics Economy; Sustainable Packaging Coalition); National Governance Policies (e.g., China’s 5-Year NDRC Plan; EU’s Circular Economy Action Plan); Local U.S. policies & Regulatory Systems (e.g., Maine’s EPR law, Oregon’s EPR law, and pending CO, CA, NH, NY, VT WA, HI, MD); Zero-Waste / Waste-Free commitments across industries and municipalities; International Programmes (e.g., UN  Environment Programme’s Circular Economy Platform; UN SDGs); and individual industry member commitments (e.g., Unilever’s 2025 Packaging Commitments).

More specifically in the packaging industry, there is an evident need for an aggressive approach by Fast Moving Consumer Goods companies and retailers to address sustainable packaging in response to consumer awareness and regulatory requirements. Companies are making extensive commitments towards different environmental goals, ranging from phasing out certain materials to developing and implementing circular economies for all their operations in the coming years. As an example, the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment defined a set of goals to be reached in 2025, involving over 250 businesses signatories of the pact such as Unilever, Nestlé, PepsiCo, The Coca-Cola Company, and L’Oréal and targeting “to eliminate the plastic items that we don’t need; and innovate so all plastics we do need are designed to be safely reused, recycled, or composted.” The market for sustainable packaging solutions, including reusables, returnables, compostables or other recyclable or alternative materials is presenting growth of over 10% year over year. Although significant progress has been achieved so far, it is far behind the scale needed to generate impactful benefits for the larger society.

The M.S. in Sustainable Packaging degree program will prepare students to develop viable and sustainable packaging designs and packaging-system solutions that mitigate and even reduce associated environmental burdens. The degree program prepares students to work in multidisciplinary teams, involving marketing, finance, engineering, production, supply chain, compliance, and sustainability professionals to develop novel solutions that reduce or eliminate the environmental footprint of packaging systems. Grounded in Industrial Ecology, this holistic approach builds on the core areas of policy and infrastructure, business, packaging science. The policy and infrastructure core prepares students to navigate in the constantly changing policy landscape, to understand the regulatory framework governing sustainable packaging materials and to understand the required infrastructural changes to allow the rapid adaptation of novel sustainable packaging solutions. The business core provides skills to students to develop a strategic business plan, financially justify, and propose a strategic plan for the implementation of the proposed packaging solution. The packaging science core provides a thorough understanding of unique characteristics of available sustainable packaging materials and teaches students how to evaluate performance and design with novel sustainable packaging materials. The industrial ecology core provides the skills required for the quantitative and comparative assessment of the different packaging systems from an  environmental standpoint.

Through project-based learning and industry-sponsored capstone projects, students will learn to holistically evaluate real-life sustainable packaging systems from the engineering, business, and environmental standpoint and to be able to design with novel sustainable packaging materials to reduce the environmental footprint of packages.

This degree program will target working professionals who are working on developing, evaluating, or implementing sustainable packaging solutions. The degree program will be offered in a fully online and predominantly asynchronous format to allow professionals to participate in a degree while working full time. The target audience includes professionals who are currently working or aspire to work as a packaging engineer, sustainability manager, or business professional and have significant job responsibilities related to the reduction of packaging waste and/or increasing the environmental footprint of packaging systems.

The degree is consistent with Virginia Tech’s land grant mission to improve “the quality of life and the human condition within the Commonwealth of Virginia and throughout the world.”