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Atlantic Packaging Embracing Sustainability, Climate Action

Photo Courtesy Atlantic Packaging

Atlantic Packaging has been at the forefront of the packaging and printing industry in North Carolina. The company began as a local newspaper before becoming one of the largest paper-based packaging producers in the United States. 

Today, it’s heralded as one of the most sustainable. A massive effort has been made to introduce substantial ESG initiatives into the Atlantic supply chain. We chatted with the director of sustainability, Caroline DeLoach, to get the inside scoop on how Atlantic has transformed itself. 

DeLoach took us through her journey to becoming Atlantic’s first-ever director of sustainability. As a child, she became fascinated by recycling and waste management after seeing a video about landfills in the third grade.

She became a young environmentalist and knew she wanted to do something to help the world as it battled climate change. 

After attending Georgetown University for her undergraduate studies, she worked as a consultant for the U.S. Department of Energy. However, by then, the former administration had begun cutting funding to the contracts. She had been working to make her firm more sustainable as a side project, and she swiftly realized that she enjoyed more than consulting. 

“It quickly became my favorite part of my day, even though it was probably 10–20% of my day, and it became clear that’s something I would enjoy doing: spending my full-time job helps companies become more sustainable,” she explained in an interview with The Business Download (TBD). “I wasn’t seeing a lot of the movement that I wanted to see on the federal level just based on the administration changes, pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, things like that.”  

Photo Courtesy Atlantic Packaging

After receiving her MBA from the Yale School of Environment — where she studied the circular economy — DeLoach and her husband moved to North Carolina, where she connected with Wes Carter, current president of Atlantic Packaging. She emailed him explaining her sustainability education and how she thought she could help Atlantic make some of these eco-conscious changes. In the summer of 2021, after interning at the company, DeLoach became the first director of sustainability. 

Atlantic supplies equipment and materials for logistics and transportation, printing and converting for large-scale projects, consulting, and engineering services. We asked DeLoach how they approach packaging for the food and beverage industry, which is one of our main topics covered at TBD. 

“There is an awkward tension in the sustainability world between the amount of packaging we use, shelf life, and avoiding food waste,” she said.

“So, there’s this push and pull between how we ensure food stays as fresh as possible and gets to consumers because food waste is one of the most problematic and plentiful things we throw away.”  

Food packaging is susceptible to landfill waste due to raw contact contamination. DeLoach said she can’t recycle raw chicken packaging because of residue. Atlantic focuses on the secondary and tertiary packaging that doesn’t directly touch food. 

“I think a lot of the brands are so focused on the primary food contact packaging that they forget we have a lot of opportunities to reduce the secondary and tertiary packaging, so that’s often where we step in,” DeLoach said. “We help with a dramatic reduction of those outer cartons or trays or films.”  

One of the company’s big hits is its Fishbone hand carrier, a recyclable aluminum can holder made from sustainable materials. It cuts down on single-use plastic and the harmful plastic ring packs that snare sea turtles. 

The carriers also break down better and can be recycled for second-life use. The paperboard is 100% curbside recyclable and has a water-based barrier coating for moisture resistance. DeLoach said several breweries have used Fishbone in addition to competing paperboard can carriers. 

Photo Courtesy A New Earth Project

DeLoach has developed a “robust Zero Waste program in-house as well.” The company is working on having two facilities certified zero waste by the Green Business Certification Inc.’s TRUE Program

“We also have an industry-leading climate action program where we were the first packaging company in North America to have an approved net-zero science-based target approved by the Science-Based Target Initiative,” DeLoach said. The company also received an “A” from the CDP (established as the Carbon Disclosure Project) for its environmental reporting. Only five years ago, Atlantic had a “D-” rating.

According to its 2023 sustainability report, the company has seen an 8.4% intensity reduction in Scope 2 location-based emissions from 2021 to 2022, and Scope 1 emissions intensity fell by 11.3%.

The company has implemented renewable energy and efficiency measures. In 2022, Scope 3 emissions intensity was only up by 7.8%. Company fleet vehicles are now 17% hybrid, and forklifts are fully electric. Atlantic says they are procuring deals for electric trucks. 

In 2022, the business began investigating virtual power purchase agreements with several supplies to buy renewable energy credits. In 2021, solar systems were added to facilities in Charlotte, North Carolina, and  Charleston, South Carolina, and panels were installed at the company’s Dominican Republic site in 2022. Almost all of Atlantic’s rooftop solar systems were installed before the Inflation Reduction Act, but they expect to install more. 

Photo Courtesy Atlantic Packaging

Atlantic also runs A New Earth Project, a global ocean plastic reduction project. It’s a collaboration of brand experts, surfers, and packaging experts. They offer a list of recyclable and low-impact packaging options. The inspiration came after Wes Carter noticed ocean plastic in waves while surfing in Hawaii. It uses the power of storytelling to raise awareness about ocean-bound waste and how to make more sustainable choices. 

“Having those stories come firsthand from elite outdoor athletes who see it in the field in these beautiful places we love is very useful,” DeLoach said on the project. “Being able to say, ‘Okay, let’s use the outdoor industry as a guinea pig — a very willing to adopt change guinea pig — for changing the types of packaging they use.

Let’s tell stories about it so that maybe when other people see those stories, they see other ways we can adopt these changes.”  

Being stewards of your community has been historically ingrained in Atlantic’s history. When it was still called the Tabor City Tribune, founder W. Horace Carter wrote highly critical editorials about the Ku Klux Klan. His print campaign led to death threats and a financial boycott, but his work exposed the crimes of several Klansmen, sending dozens of them to prison and winning Carter a Pulitzer Prize in 1953. 

When we asked DeLoach about future ESG initiatives, she shared, “Atlantic also has a big emphasis on health and wellness.” 

“A lot of that has manifested in our wellness program just for our employees, which is wonderful, but one of the connections that I think Wes and the leadership have made very well is the fundamental connection between our own health and planetary health,” she continued. “When we do things that are better for the planet, they tend to be better for our health. We’re trying to make more of those connections between the things that we do that are better for our bodies and the things that we do that are better for the planet.”     


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