At this year’s record-shattering PACK EXPO Las Vegas, I caught up with Norm Kukuk, President of ORBIS Corporation. It was my first chance to chat since he took the company’s helm earlier this year. We met at the ORBIS display across the hall from the bustling Reusable Packaging Association Learning Center. He brimmed with enthusiasm about the prospects for ORBIS, the reusable packaging industry at large, and the value that can be delivered to customers, supply chains and society at large.
From plant floors to virtual meet-ups on platforms like Zoom and Teams, Kukuk has been on the move. He has touched down at several ORBIS locations, in person or virtually. “I’m trying to hit as many Orbis employees as possible to talk about our strategic growth planning, their part in it, and how we all do this together,” he elaborated. “So I’ve been doing a lot of listening, but there’s been a lot of talking there as well. It has been a fun time.”
Having been with ORBIS for 28 years, Kukuk’s passion for the industry is unabashed. “I love the message around the circular economy,” he said. In the past, too many decision-makers have equated recyclability with sustainability. “People talk about Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle, but recycling should always be the last resort.” His words underscore a pivotal shift in the packaging industry towards prioritizing reuse.
Kukuk on the positive use case for plastic in reusables
Kukuk’s vision for ORBIS paints a picture of a future where plastic isn’t the enemy but an ally in sustainable practices. “When you look at circular economy, it is really focused on reuse,” he pointed out. Emphasizing the role of plastic in reusable packaging, Kukuk elaborated, “Plastic sometimes has a negative rap on it, but this is a positive use case – the amount of recycled content we’re able to absorb in our packaging and how we drive reuse.”
Beyond the environmental implications, Kukuk shed light on the ergonomic benefits of reusable packaging. “Reusables can help improve front-line employee experience,” he stated, citing some of the more recent design innovations that improve worker safety, such as rounded corners and edges that prevent cuts.
ORBIS research lab and recycled content challenges
The ORBIS research lab plays a vital role in the company’s sustainability aspirations regarding the use of recycled content. Around 12 years ago, the company invested in the lab, a nod to its commitment to product quality and innovation. “We do a lot of materials testing requirements for research and development,” Kukuk shared. “We look at how we broaden the type of materials we use and also validate the materials we use in our products. We will not accept lower performance from recycled content, and our research lab focuses on this.”
However, Kukuk was candid about the challenges related to recycled content, with plastic contamination standing out. He elaborated, “Different materials are getting mixed together, and this creates contamination. How do we minimize some of the materials contamination?” he asked rhetorically.
It’s a pertinent question, and Kukuk acknowledges that reducing plastic contamination requires concerted efforts across sectors. This includes closer collaboration between government agencies, recycling, waste haulers, and industry players. While chemical recycling may provide solutions in the long run, Kukuk stressed the immediate need for better recycling programs, infrastructure and the design of plastic single-use packaging with recycling in mind.
Kukuk is also upbeat on trends that show more societal support for reuse. “Sometimes it’s the younger demographics that are more interested,” he observed. “They are more likely to say, ‘Yeah, I would do a deposit system; I would return the package if it meant not having something in a landfill.’”
ORBIS values diverse perspectives in cross-pollinating innovation. Kukuk remarked on ORBIS’s success in recruiting new talent to augment its many industry veterans and also the value of different geographic experiences as the company continues to expand its presence in Europe and Latin America.
How ORBIS RPM can improve user experience
Regarding RPM, the ORBIS managed services division, Kukuk said it plays a crucial role in moving reusables forward. “The way I look at it is our services should be focused on helping our customers have a positive experience with reusable packaging… So they say it’s lost, but it’s not necessarily lost. They just lost sight of where it’s going. So we help them to have a better experience with reusable packaging.”
“We believe we have a strong formula with our RPM business to help customers do that,” he continued. “That’s why RPM is so important to me. The better their experience, the more they keep the packaging in use. The more products companies put into reusables, the better for industry and society.”
“Just seeing what’s going on in the industry, it has been fantastic,” he concluded.