Coconut oil is becoming a popular product in many people’s kitchens and baths as they discover the benefits it can add to their cooking and self-care routines, as an alternative to butter or lotion.
Like butter, coconut oil can move between different states of matter, becoming liquid or solid depending on its temperature. Unlike butter, coconut oil is conventionally packaged in glass jars. When it solidifies, it can be more difficult to scoop out, leading to dirty utensils, mess and product waste.
Four UW-Stout packaging majors set out to solve that problem and developed a new form of packaging for coconut oil. Their design, Coconut Cubes, are environmentally friendly, individually portioned containers stored in a convenient pouch.
Team members, who have graduated, were Benjamin Crooks, of River Falls; Joshua Geigle, of Amery; Sydney Olson, of Pulaski; and Robert Seichter, of Monroe.
Their design took second place in the 2020 Student AmeriStar Package Awards competition. Sponsored by the Institute of Packaging Professionals, the award honors the most innovative packages developed by undergraduate and graduate students and is one of the industry’s most prestigious design awards.
National recognition in the industry
As their senior project for their Packaging Development course, the team’s research began by seeking out product packaging in stores that could be improved. In their design process they brainstormed around 30 package designs, looking to eliminate specific issues and determining which designs were feasible and economically reasonable, Seichter explained.
They landed on coconut oil packaging, and Coconut Cubes began to take shape.
Olson had heard of gelatin being used as a film in packaging, like in gel capsules. The team experimented with recipes and developed a biodegradable gelatin film to create small, cubed containers to hold single portions of coconut oil.
The cubes are stored in a resealable plastic pouch. A consumer could remove the desired number of cubes from the pouch and open and empty the select amount of coconut oil needed. The cubes could be emptied without the use of a utensil, whether the product was liquid or solid.
The team’s research of life cycle analysis showed the gelatin container and plastic pouch to have a smaller environmental impact than glass jars. And an economic impact test showed their packaging to be 12% cheaper to make than traditional packaging.
“Coconut Cubes were made with the specific purpose to fix an issue with the current packaging for coconut oil,” Seichter said.
When the AmeriStar awards were announced recently, Seichter said the team was shocked at its achievement. “But at the same time, we were not surprised that our hard work had amounted to something great. We worked very hard for an entire semester, and seeing the award was a special moment for us. It was a very prideful moment,” he said.
“I had completely forgotten that we had entered until one of my group members sent out a text saying we won,” Olson said. “I’m really proud of this design, and it’s really rewarding to be recognized for having good ideas and execution.”
Judging criteria for the competition include innovation, product protection, economics, package performance, marketing, environmental impact and food-waste reduction. Coconut Cubes earned the UW-Stout team a high ranking among national and international universities, like California Polytechnic State University, Michigan State, San Jose State and the Indian Institute of Packaging.
First place for student design was awarded to Cal Poly for Centauri, a packaging concept for N95 masks.
Encouraging students to participate
Seichter recommends students enter the competition to help them prepare for what package design is like in the professional world. “This is the type of thing that UW-Stout is fantastic at; giving students experience that is more than reading about it in a book. I feel much more prepared for a professional position after going through this package design process,” he said.
Seichter isn’t the first in his family to attend UW-Stout. His father, Tim, is a 1984 graduate of the packaging program, and his two sisters attended as well.
Tim Seichter serves on the Stout University Foundation board and is chair of the Foundation’s scholarship committee. He is a package engineering manager at Colony Brands Inc. and has previously served as a judge for the AmeriStar Package Awards.
“The competition allows students to be creative, problem-solve, justify decisions and experience pitfalls. Students are eager to solve the sustainability hurdles we face and will hopefully help save our planet,” he said.
The IoPP is accepting entries for the 2021 awards. The deadline is Friday, April 30. Although seniors in the Packaging Development course have not been required to enter the competition the past two semesters because of COVID-19, Program Director Robert Meisner highly encourages packaging students to participate in industry opportunities like design contests and scholarships.
“The competition is open to all students, all grades which is why I think it is sad that there are not more entries. That situation is not unique to UW-Stout. The number of entries from the other packaging schools is also low,” Meisner said.
“Participation shows they are creative and willing to go above and beyond the classroom requirements. They also have the opportunity to have their name and efforts publicized across the packaging industry,” he said.
Crooks, Geigle and Olson graduated in spring 2020. Robert Seichter graduated in fall 2020 and is interviewing for packaging engineering positions around the state.
“I hope to make an impact on people’s lives,” he said. “Working for a large company with a lot of reach gives me a sense of pride in my work, and knowing I am touching many people’s lives is important to me.”
Olson is working in package testing and engineering. She was drawn to packaging because it requires analytical reasoning and creativity. “I never wanted to choose between the two,” she said.
She believes the industry is male-dominated and that there is a hesitation to take women seriously.
“I hope to be a good example that women are just as capable as men and hopefully try to even out the numbers. The company I currently work for is only 16% women, and I’d love to see that grow a bit,” she said.
UW-Stout is one of only a few schools in the United States, and the only school in the UW System, that offers a bachelor’s degree in packaging. There are more than 28 packaging scholarships available through the University Foundation.
UW-Stout also offers a Dual Level program plan that provides packaging students the opportunity to apply for their master’s in operations and supply management.