“Our mission is very personal to me,” said Wes Carter, President of Atlantic Packaging. Based in Wilmington, North Carolina, the company today provides equipment, materials, engineering and service for consumer and B2B packaging solutions with a strong focus on sustainable packaging. Atlantic has over 30 facilities and more than 1,500 employees.
Part of Carter’s personal mission goes back to Atlantic’s roots. The company was founded as Atlantic Publishing in 1946 by an idealistic journalist, W. Horace Carter – Wes Carter’s grandfather – who published The Tabor City Tribune, a weekly newspaper in Tabor City, North Carolina. Almost from the start, the newspaper had taken on the local section of the Ku Klux Klan and waged a two-year battle with a series of editorials against the group. Despite death threats, vandalism and financial boycotts, the fledgling newspaper eventually won, exposing the group’s members and helping to jail dozens of criminals. The Tabor City Tribune won the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for this effort.
In the 1960s, the publisher expanded its business to include printing, paper processing and the sale of office supplies. Under the leadership of Wes’ father, Rusty Carter, the 1970’s saw the addition of industrial supplies to support what was then a large textile company in the Southeast. The 1990’s saw expansion into industrial packaging automation and integration and a greater focus on technical service support through Atlantic’s growing network of offices. And in recent years, the company has had a strong focus on sustainability in packaging.
Carter sees parallels between Atlantic’s modern quest to improve the natural environment and the company’s early civil rights activism. “There’s an interesting synergy between what my grandfather did and what we’re doing now,” he said. “But the big difference is nobody’s trying to kill me.”
However, this part of the job is also personal for him. “I’m an Eagle Scout, hunter, fisherman, backpacker and surfer,” he said. “I’ve spent a lot of time traveling to places like Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and Indonesia. The differences today compared to 20 years ago are sometimes amazing. People in the packaging industry have to take responsibility to make sure there is a way where the material doesn’t end up in the environment.”
With its integrated solution offerings, Atlantic can help customers with their packaging from start to finish, assisting with package and equipment design, testing and delivery of the best materials and configurations. “We help our customers use packaging more efficiently,” said Carter.
One of the biggest areas of focus is avoiding plastic wherever possible. “There is no place for single-use plastic in consumer packaging,” Carter continued. “We have natural, fiber-based options for most applications. We get it from a sustainable source and use fibers that we recycle really well in this country. Converting all single-use consumer packaging to fiber in the next three to five years is entirely feasible.”
Two other challenges remain for the near future: stretch film, used to hold product ranges together, and food packaging. “On the B2B side of our business, stretch wrap is the top product,” Carter said. “We need to eliminate that waste now – it’s about £2.5 billion going to landfill every year. We have to find a way to close this cycle. We bought a machine in Europe, an Erema, and created a single lane for stretch film recycling. It produces clean recycled material that looks like new plastic.”
The challenge with food packaging is quite different. “There are real food safety concerns with food containers,” Carter explained. “I will not be the first to eat chicken that was packaged in a fiber tray! Compostable materials make more sense here. Curbside composting is the solution – it needs to be as common as a trash can. Organic films from sustainable, non-GMO sources are also a great potential solution.”
Carter sees Atlantic’s focus on all of this as a very viable way to grow the business. “All major consumer goods companies and retail brands are looking to their suppliers to meet their sustainability goals, especially their packaging suppliers,” he said. “Whether it’s Kellogg’s or P&G, I’m their Scope 3 [indirect CO2 emissions that are part of the corporate environmental footprint]. Because of our commitment to sustainability and carbon neutrality, companies are excited to do business with us. We’ve never had a greater catalyst for the growth of our business. We are able to transform our customers’ sustainability profiles in a very short time.”
He sees the possibilities as endless. “Surfboard packaging doesn’t really move the needle,” he said. “But when we delivered the first fiberglass surfboard package, it was a lot of fun. But then look at the toilets – they are all packed with styrofoam. It’s a big deal and if we can switch all of that to fiber packaging it will have a huge impact on the environment.”
When all is said and done, everything really gets personal for him. “Sustainability is not a fad,” he concluded. “I have twins who are eight years old. I want to take them surfing, hunting and fishing but I’m scared of the world we might leave them to. I’m in an influential position where I can help bring about the change. That gave me a direction for my life. My grandfather must have felt the same way. I understand what drives him more than ever.”