The Environment+Energy Leader honoree program is an annual list that recognizes the environment and energy “doers” who break trail in creating new solutions, programs, platforms, best practices and products to help their companies – or other companies – achieve greater success in commercial and industrial environment and energy management. Meet the Honorees… is an ongoing series that will feature one E+E Honoree from 2022 each week. See the complete list of 2022 Honorees here.
Meet Fabien Thibault, global manager of product and packaging sustainability for Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, which operates as MilliporeSigma in the US and Canada. In the Life Science business of Merck KGaA, Fabian’s focus is to improve the sustainability of products and packaging while “delivering value to our customers and working closely with our R&D and packaging teams,” he explains.
Can you tell us about your job responsibilities and day to day activities?
Fabien Thibault: I currently lead the Design for Sustainability Program, through which I support our product development teams to help them understand the value of developing more sustainable products. I perform lifecycle assessments of our products and packaging to identify and prioritize opportunities for improvement with a positive environmental impact. Additionally, I work to improve our current program to provide more value to our development teams and our customers.
I also lead our work in sustainable packaging, including our new SMASH Packaging Plan, a four-year approach for driving improvement in the sustainability of packaging across the organization. It includes working with our development teams to apply the new packaging sustainability standards during the product development process. It also includes working with internal stakeholders from packaging engineering, sourcing and distribution to drive specific initiatives to improve our existing product and distribution packaging.
Can you talk to us about your biggest packaging challenge and how you are addressing it?
FT: Packaging is a challenging issue for the life science industry due to requirements for sterile conditions, protection for fragile and temperature-sensitive contents, and additional transportation and safety regulations. This demands extra packaging, which requires extra environmental resources, creating waste disposal challenges, particularly for a company with 55 manufacturing sites and more than 100 distribution centers worldwide.
When we receive a parcel that dwarves its content, we may think, “why don’t they simply use a smaller box?” The fact is that this issue is more complex than it seems to be. Indeed, there can be a multitude of parameters that can lead to an excess of packaging.
To drive significant reduction of packaging, we have developed and implemented a comprehensive approach that notably addresses three important areas:
- How to ensure that packaging is considered during the product development to limit packaging requirements;
- How to implement good practices to develop more sustainable packaging for products;
- How to improve our distribution practices to limit excess packaging.
What was a successful project or implementation you worked on at your company that you can share? Do you have any tips that would help colleagues at other companies who are contemplating similar projects?
FT: Product design and packaging go hand-in-hand. For example, we created an antibody that can be shipped at room temperature, whereas traditional antibodies must be stored and shipped cold. This innovative solution in product design resulted in significant packaging weight reductions, as we eliminated the need for polystyrene coolers and ice bricks in product shipping These reductions will enable us to avoid the emission of around 75 metric tons of CO2 per year by 2025. This is just one example demonstrating the importance of considering the entire product life cycle during its design phase, notably to optimize the product design in order to minimize packaging requirements.
The most challenging part was to align our packaging initiative goals with those of key internal stakeholders. By involving them early in the development process, we had a greater opportunity for dialogue and collaboration, which helped us achieve our sustainability goals and minimize environmental impact.
What trends do you expect to see in the market in the next few years? How will organizations overcome them?
FT: I expect to see the importance of sustainability continuously increase, and that it will become a mandatory requirement to meet the growing expectations and needs of customers, and to remain competitive on the market.
On the other hand, with the resources of the Earth being limited, I expect increasing tensions with respect to the availability and cost of raw materials. Our capacity to optimize the use of natural resources for our products and to move from a linear to a circular economy will be key factors to overcome this challenge and create a more sustainable future.
Developing recycling technologies and infrastructures will be a critical piece to this puzzle, in particular to ensure that we can create a valuable second life for most of the plastics used within the industry.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
FT: I’m extremely grateful to Environment+Energy Leader for this recognition. Product and packaging sustainability is a collective journey that can only be successful through cross-collaboration, and I’m proud to be able to contribute to that journey.