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Atlantic Packaging

Internship Spotlight: Caroline James ’22, Atlantic Packaging

Caroline James ’22 on taking the first step in a career transition to sustainability with an internship at Atlantic Packaging.

What are you doing this summer? We asked rising second-year MBA students to check in from their summer internships, where they’re applying the lessons of their first year at Yale SOM.

Caroline James ’22
Internship: Atlantic Packaging, Wilmington, North Carolina

Hometown: Atlanta, Georgia
Pronouns: she/her/hers
Clubs and Affiliations: Business & the Environment Club Leader, Economies of Scale, CDO Career Advisor
Favorite SOM Class: Operations Management
Favorite SOM Professor: Lesley Meng
Favorite New Haven eatery: Modern Pizza!
Bonus facts: I’m an avid gardener, and few things give me more joy than making food from things I grew myself!

I came into Yale SOM determined to find an internship and a future career in environmental sustainability, and I spent my first few months talking to SOM alumni in corporate sustainability roles at large CPG companies. As I had those conversations, I began to realize that the space in sustainability that excited me most was sustainable packaging and other circular economy issues, so I narrowed my search to packaging companies. I found Atlantic Packaging, a privately owned packaging company based in North Carolina, and was excited by their president, Wes Carter, whose genuine drive to make Atlantic the most sustainable packaging company U.S. is contagious. I joined Atlantic this summer as a sustainability strategist and have been able to lead multiple projects over the summer.

One of the first initiatives I took on was creating a framework for categorizing Atlantic’s sustainability initiatives. The company has been rapidly improving its operational sustainability–reducing carbon emissions through efficiency and solar installations, working to become a zero-waste organization, etc. Some company leaders were looking at ways to create closed-loop systems for certain materials, and others were finding more sustainable products to sell, such as Fishbone, a curbside-recyclable beverage carrier. Wes was deeply involved in all of these projects, as well as in prolific advocacy with the professional surfer community and the packaging industry to raise awareness about the harms of single-use plastics (SUPs). As I took inventory of these various initiatives, I created a holistic sustainability approach to organize these projects which included the following categories:

  • Operational Sustainability: reducing the impacts of Atlantic’s operations, including measuring and reporting emissions, reducing emissions through renewable energy installations, and reducing company-generated waste, etc.
  • Impacts of Traditional Materials: reducing the impacts of items Atlantic already sells, particularly single-use plastics, by sourcing more products that are designed for recyclability and seeking closed-loop recovery options for those products
  • Sustainable Product Innovation: finding new sustainable products to replace unsustainable packaging materials that we can begin selling, such as paper-based protection for e-commerce shipments to replace plastic air pillows and bubble wrap
  • Partnerships & Advocacy: joining alliances with CPG companies and other packaging companies, such as the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, as well as creating educational materials for businesses and consumers

As I put this framework together, I identified that the most additional resources were needed in designing more products for recyclability, as well as in finding more sustainable packaging products that Atlantic can bring to market. I’ve spent much of my time this summer researching the state of non-traditional packaging materials, such as bioplastics, hemp-based fiber, and mycelium (mushroom) packaging, so that Atlantic can be a first mover in the most sustainable packaging possible.

I was particularly excited to dive into the sustainable product innovation side, because it’s been an opportunity to fundamentally change how Atlantic generates revenue. In my informational interviews with other corporate sustainability professionals in the fall, I found that some felt frustrated being relegated to the operational sustainability side of the company, where they had little say over the sustainability of the actual products the company sells. At Atlantic, I’ve had the buy-in and the mandate from leadership to completely reexamine what we sell and where our profit comes from, with an eye towards selling only packaging that we can truly all recycle.

It’s exciting to find sustainable packaging alternatives across all kinds of industries that could reduce waste and pollution at scale. For example, I’ve been researching the alternatives to plastic air pillows (we call this “void fill”) and bubble wrap that you commonly receive in e-commerce shipments—several companies now make paper-based void fill and protective packaging that is recyclable in a way that flexible plastics are not. As part of this research, I’ve also been trying to weigh and communicate the respective impacts of each type of packaging. For instance, while plastic air pillows are not easily recycled and paper-based void fill is, the paper material takes three to four times the amount of carbon to produce as the plastic does. No material is a silver bullet to the packaging problem, so understanding these relative impacts has been critical. I often think about a phrase Dean Jain brought up often in Modeling Managerial Decisions: what are you optimizing for? That question is critical in making sustainability decisions since they involve tradeoffs between things like emissions, recyclability, compostability, water intensity, and more.

I’ve had the opposite of a virtual internship—I was on the road quite a bit! Over the summer, I was able to visit a plastic film extruder, a paper mill, a materials recovery facility (known as a MRF, which is a recycling sortation center), a wood pallet recycler, and our massive printing and graphics division. Being on the ground seeing how various materials are made, as well as how they’re recycled, has been formative as I think about ways to design products for recovery and recyclability.

The network that I’ve already built at Yale through SOM and CBEY has been so strong and reliable even during this short time. A MEM alumna mentor of mine from Yale Blue Green, Olga Kachook MEM ’17, works for the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and has helped me locate countless resources. Sami Ghazi ’21, a recent SOM MBA for Executives graduate, works in plastic waste reduction at PepsiCo and has helped me think about the trajectory of my career. On an Atlantic call with Dr. Bronner’s, I found myself on the phone with MBA alumna Darcy Shiber-Knowles ’13 and immediately talked about the SOM connection. Recent MBA alumna Sarah Gross ’21 and I have talked about her experience so far at Closed Loop Partners and the intersection of their work with Atlantic’s. Having so many sustainability-oriented Yale connections has given me the comfort that even if I don’t know how to do something, my network can help me navigate it.

My work marries my interest in sustainability with the business education I’ve gained at SOM—how to think about consumer sentiment of sustainability, how to price products, ways to foster innovation in an organization, and beyond. Being a business-oriented sustainability professional has given me a leg up in helping companies do well by doing good. I’m excited to be joining Atlantic full-time after I graduate in May, and I’m so grateful that my experience at SOM has propelled me into the circular economy world. I kept telling my peers that my goal was to find an internship and job that let me spend 75%+ of my day on sustainability, and I’m finally doing that.