Virginia Tech students drive the sustainable future of packaging at PackEXPO
The country’s largest packaging convention provides classroom, research lab, and career development opportunities for packaging systems and design students.
At the center of the convention floor in Chicago, attendees jostled around the Virginia Tech booth, excited to get their hands on samples of new packaging materials made from renewable resources. Throughout the exhibit halls, Hokies exchanged business cards and discussed internship opportunities with employers ready to hire. And over it all, a two-foot replica of the HokieBird, made entirely of corrugated fiberboard and shipped to the event in a special crate, stood watch over the action.
This was PackEXPO 2022 — the nation’s largest trade show for the packaging industry — and students in the packaging systems and design major in the College of Natural Resources and Environment were making real-time connections with professionals and researchers while experiencing first-hand all of the dimensions of the packaging industry.
“We had a big booth this year, and that gave us a huge amount of visibility,” said Laszlo Horvath, associate professor in the Department of Sustainable Biomaterials and director for the Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design. “It was big for us because we’re still one of the newer academic programs in the field.”
That extra visibility was the result of hard work on the part of Horvath, Assistant Professor Jennifer Russell, and Assistant Professor Eduardo Molina, who submitted a proposal that led to Virginia Tech being one of two universities that received the opportunity to present on the sustainable future of packaging.
The Hokie booth depicted that future from a range of perspectives, from the close-up work on using sustainable materials to solve tangible packaging demands to the wider challenges of how to incorporate environment-minded strategies into a trillion-dollar industry.
“We structured the booth to display different areas of sustainability that we are focusing on in our program,” said Horvath. ‘We had one area that was about bioplastics and new packaging materials made from renewable resources, one focused on the circular economy addressing the environmental aspects of packaging, and one about considering industry systems design from a holistic perspective, with a focus on optimizing the amount of materials entering systems.”
Understanding the scale of an industry
For the 23 undergraduate students and seven graduate students who attended, PackEXPO was an opportunity to see first-hand the magnitude of the industry. The convention, held in Chicago’s McCormick Place — the largest convention hall in North America — saw some 44,000 attendees and 2,200 exhibitors gather together to share information and learn about new advances in the field.
“Just having the chance to network with companies was a big highlight,” said Gabby Brophy, a senior from Glen Allen, Virginia. “There were different areas where you could go and explore various kinds of packaging fields, from machinery to health care, to food logistics and supply chain challenges. Whatever you wanted to explore in depth, you had the chance to talk directly with people, make connections, and learn what they do day to day."
Anna Troutt '22, who graduated from the packaging program in December, said a second highlight of this year’s event was the chance to connect with alumni and supporters of the university’s program at a dinner in a downtown Chicago restaurant.
“That was a cool opportunity to mingle with alumni and people pivotal to providing support for our program,” said Troutt. “Having the chance to talk to people farther along in their careers was really helpful to me as I think about starting my own career.”
The trip was organized by members of the Packaging Systems and Design Club at Virginia Tech, a student organization that aims to provide packaging students with career opportunities while fostering connections and hosting events. Funds to cover costs were provided by the PMMI Foundation, which hosted PackEXPO, as well as the Department of Sustainable Biomaterials and the Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design.
For graduate student Mary Paz Alvarez Valverde, being at the expo provided an unexpected chance to present her research to industry professionals.
“While I was at the expo, I reached out to some of the people from the Plastic Shipping Container Institute. When they heard that I was doing research on plastic pails and stress distribution, they invited me to present some of my findings to their association meeting,” she said.
Alvarez Valverde said such an experience highlights the packaging major’s focus on real-world challenges.
“The whole point that the packaging lab tries to emphasize is that we want to avoid knowledge for knowledge’s sake. We want to do research that is applicable, research that someone can benefit from.”
Horvath echoed that connecting education and research with tangible challenges in the industry is a cornerstone of the program.
“In everything we do in the packaging program, we try to focus on building and fostering industry connections,” he said. “That’s why we encourage our students to attend trade shows: We want them to see how extensive the industry is and for them to have the opportunity to interact with all of our partners. We tell them that this is a big industry, but when they spend four days walking around and never see the same area twice, that it a useful way to show them how massive the industry is.”
From exclusive internships to a dynamic career
For students who attended PackEXPO, the experience was the culmination of a journey of discovery through the program as well as a gateway to a professional position.
“Going in, I assumed that this major was just about boxes and packaging,” said Brophy, the current president of the student packaging club. “But once I got into it, I realized it was super interesting. I’m getting a great education, I get to actually work on projects that come directly from industry, and I’m getting all kinds of real work experiences.”
Last summer, Brophy became the first Virginia Tech packaging major to intern at Tesla, where she helped streamline processes for the electric vehicle giant.
“I was their supplier industrialization engineering intern, so I worked with the packaging engineering team,” she said. “I helped them communicate with supplies, helping to translate why certain changes needed to happe, and how we could implement those changes on the actual line, to maintain productivity.”
For Troutt, who came to packaging from sustainable biomaterials, the major offered the chance to merge a variety of interests while finding work that was tangible.
“I started in sustainable biomaterials, but I wanted to do more with my hands,” said Troutt, who is from Champaign, Ilinois. “I found that packaging was this perfect merge of design, engineering, business, and science. It was a perfect crossroads of interests for me, and as soon as I switched, I was happy as I could be.”
That capacity for students to learn a diverse range of skills is a deliberate dimension of the major, which takes a comprehensive approach to introducing students to a range of aspects in the packaging industry so students can find their areas of interest in the field.
“Because of the holistic nature of our program, we draw students who want to design, students who are interested in the environmental angle, students who want to focus on the engineering or business side of the industry, or students who want to work creatively to solve problems,” said Horvath. “Because we are training our students to be contributors to a specific industry, they are trained to have the skills to do anything in the field.”
The packaging program will further connect students with leading companies and internship opportunities at the college's spring career events: the career fair and first-ever Packaging Career Expo, which will take place Feb. 22 at Virginia Tech.
“Packaging at Virginia Tech is a discovery major: Everyone who finds their way to it becomes really attached to it,” said Troutt, who will be starting a new job doing research and development for the packaging engineering team at SC Johnson. “It becomes our saving grace: You see people from all kinds of backgrounds doing so many different things, and it motivates you to do the same.”
And the cardboard HokieBird — an unofficial mascot for the program — made both the trip to Chicago and safe return to campus.
“A lot of work went into getting our HokieBird to the convention, and, thankfully, it survived,” said Molina. “After all, you don’t want to be the packaging program at the conference that couldn’t ship something.”