Thinking outside the box

Written by: Peter Clayson | Published:

Peter Clayson explains how recycled corrugated and plastics packaging specialist DS Smith has continued to succeed while others have fallen by the wayside, and its goal to become the leading supplier of recycled packaging for consumer goods. By Geraldine Faulkner

It was in 1895 that Rudyard Kipling wrote his seminal poem If, which begins with “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…”

Despite having written these words at the end of the 19th century, they still resonate today, particularly for DS Smith, the specialist in recycled corrugated and plastics packaging.

For while 2015 saw companies in the materials reprocessing sector such as ECO Plastics and Closed Loop experience ‘difficulties’, DS Smith has clocked up success after success and continues to do so.

And although the company can trace its history back to the box-making business started in the 1940s by the Smith family in East London, Peter Clayson, DS Smith Recycling’s general manager: business development and external affairs, is not a man to look backwards; instead, like the group he works for, he sets his sights firmly on the here and now.

“DS Smith has a presence in 34 countries all over the world and employs around 25,400 people,” he explains. “In order to support our corrugated packaging operations, we have a recycling business that collects used paper and corrugated cardboard, from which our paper manufacturing facilities make the recycled paper used in corrugated packaging.

“Added to which, we also design and manufacture certain types of plastic packaging, and the recycling division supports them with plastic feedstocks as well.”

Aim high

Clayson stresses that DS Smith has a corporate goal to become the leading supplier of recycled packaging for consumer goods and this has entailed changes in structure and acquisitions along the way.

In 2011, Severnside Recycling, a specialist in the recovered paper sector, changed its name to DS Smith Recycling.

Today, the operation reportedly handles about 5.5 million tonnes of recyclable material a year and operates alongside its sister divisions, DS Smith Packaging and DS Smith Paper (formerly St Regis) and DS Smith Plastics in the DS Smith Group.

“We grew from a paper perspective and pulled together as DS Smith; that was as a result of listening to the customers,” adds Clayson.

To put it into a nutshell, the group’s approach to working with its customers means that instead of trying to squeeze its customers into a box (forgive the pun), DS Smith has adapted its boxes to suit its customers. And with integrated recycling and manufacturing businesses, its services and products can be supplied in-house, which gives total control over its processes.

“The supply cycle is integrated into the DS Smith loop; from a cardboard box being emptied, returned and filled with a product within 14 days,” explains the general manager.

Integration and unification are key to the DS Smith business model.

Clayson again: “We deliver value by bringing our packaging, paper, recycling and plastics operations together, letting us see the bigger picture. By using our expertise from design to production and supply to recycling, we can offer our customers solutions and services that look at the whole of their packaging needs, not just one part.

A focused approach

“We call this ‘supply-cycle thinking’. It’s a unified approach for every area of our business and it makes our customers’ lives easier by creating simplicity in otherwise complicated supply chains.”

The general manager pauses before adding: “We firmly believe that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and that’s why we are a single unified company.”

Another important factor in the group’s success is that it never forgets the core purpose for its existence. Clayson emphasises that DS Smith’s job is to ensure packaging is appropriate for use, protects the goods within it and prevents waste by ensuring the materials can be reused.

To this end, the group is very vocal on the subject of quality in recyclates.

As a member of the Resource Association, of which Clayson is chairman, and the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment (INCPEN), DS Smith campaigns hard to raise awareness of the need for maintaining the quality of recovered materials so its packaging can perform the increasingly demanding roles its customers require of it.

“Our focus in recycling is sourcing quality paper fibres to put into our process to make quality products. On the waste side, we focus on how material is collected: Is paper fibre being spoiled? When we look at material that we recycle from local authorities, there have been changes in the mix of papers we pick up, with less newsprint, since people are reading less printed copies of newspapers, and more packaging because of the ‘home delivery factor’, so our remit is to concentrate on good-quality supply.

“Our involvement with the Resource Association is to have a united voice with other material reprocessors to raise our profile and champion the issues, such as material quality, that are common to all of us. If you have a successful recycling operation, quality recyclates are produced. Poor-quality inputs are really difficult to bring up to a specification that can be efficiently used by manufacturers. So there is a responsibility on the UK waste and recycling industry to collect and produce quality raw materials.”

Putting resources centre stage

As well as helping the materials reprocessors to speak with one voice, Clayson points out: “If we’re going to move to a circular economy, resources need to be kept at higher levels of the waste hierarchy. After all, generation of waste demonstrates inefficiency in a business system. To streamline our customers’ processes, a lot of the packaging products we produce are strong and robust and stack better. Our light weighting of boxes has been very successful and this results in more tonnes of goods being carried in a vehicle/transporter. Basically, it’s like a lean manufacturing ethos, streamlining the process with the whole supply cycle fitting under the same umbrella.”

Turning the spotlight onto its plastics operation, DS Smith also designs and produces a range of plastic packaging, such as plastic bags and taps for bag-in-box packaging and rigid crates for bottled drinks.

Although paper-based packaging occupies the mainstay of the group’s production operations, the plastics operation plays a significant role in innovation and meeting customer needs. An example is a recycling initiative that enables customers to return used Correx twinwall plastic materials.

These can be reprocessed into new product applications for the packaging and construction markets, such as new signage.

DS Smith works closely with both brand owners and retailers to simplify supply chains.

Going further than that, they look at how linear supply chains can be replaced with more circular supply cycles. The process starts with packaging design and extends right the way through to the shopper experience when purchasing products off supermarket shelves.

“We work with our customers to produce packaging designs that will protect goods in transit, cut down on boxes in handling and be retail-ready on supermarket shelves – products need to look good on shelves and be easily accessible if they are going to sell.

Fulfilling more than one role

“Our designers collaborate with our customers so that the packaging fulfils more than just the traditional role of protecting goods in transit – it assists in the sales process,” explains Clayson.

Looking to the future, what plans does the group have?

“We are constantly searching for growth opportunities and the company is looking to expand and consolidate our presence in Europe. For example in Croatia, following this year’s acquisition of the European Duropack Group, DS Smith has the full breadth of its operations in the country with a paper mill, packaging plants, recycling depots and factory manufacturing a range of plastics packaging.”

What advice would he give to a start-up company that wants to emulate DS Smith Recycling’s modus operandi?

The general manager responds unhesitatingly: “Do the right thing for the environment; that is where the opportunity lies. Focus on helping companies become more efficient and improve their supply cycle.

“Also, be aware you can’t be everything to everyone, focus on being the best in your sector, have a defined goal and make sure your customers interact with you to ensure the service matches their needs.”

With the emphasis on DS Smith aiming to do the right thing for the environment, it therefore seems apt to end with the penultimate line of Kipling’s poem If:

“Yours is the earth and everything that’s in it” – so the better we look after it, the better it is for everyone.

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