Women in Packaging: Well-connected expert in the packaging industry

At the Dresden Packaging Conference, Sonja Bähr spoke about the importance of European regulations for packaging.
At the Dresden Packaging Conference, Sonja Bähr spoke about the importance of European regulations for packaging. (Image: Andre Wagenzik/dvi)

The technical management consultancy Tilisco from Wildeshausen in Lower Saxony specialises in holistic packaging management and sustainability. Industrial engineer Sonja Bähr joined the team led by company founder Till Isensee in 2018. The former Managing Director of dvi and bdvi was initially unsure whether consulting was the right thing for her. Now she is deeply immersed in the subject and swears by the network she has built up over 30 years in the packaging industry.

“My career path has never been straightforward. Originally, I wanted to study brewing and malting at the TU Berlin, but then I started studying food technology at the Berlin University of Applied Sciences (BHT). The same department also included packaging technology, which I found so exciting that I changed my subject,” says Sonja Bähr. The Berlin native then went on to study industrial engineering – and graduated with a thesis on packaging. This was followed by her first job at Berolina Kunststoffe, a manufacturer of storage and transport containers, and at the Dutch company Wavin Trepak, which had taken over the company from insolvency.

“That was a tough school. But we were already at interpack back then. That’s where I bumped into my former professor Dieter Berndt, who persuaded me to apply for the position of Managing Director at the German Packaging Institute (dvi) and the Association of German Packaging Engineers (bdvi). At the time, the dvi was organised in a joint office with the bdvi. I liked the idea of using this position to unite the synergy effects of the industry under one roof.”

When she went on parental leave for a year in 2004, Winfried Batzke became her successor. “After my second parental leave, the joint office of the associations was separated and I took over the management of the bdvi. This position ended after eleven years – a huge opportunity for me to start something completely new. So when Till Isensee from Tilisco, a former fellow student, made me an offer to work in his company in 2018, I jumped at the chance and found my niche: communication, labelling and legal frameworks are my areas of expertise.”

Holistic packaging advice

Food packaging is Tilisco‘s main area of expertise. “In this area, we have high-class packaging for which special rules apply,” explains Sonja Bähr. “However, the current hot topic is of course the legal regulations. These apply to a wide range of industries and affect everything from primary to tertiary packaging. Technically, there is almost always a solution, but the implementation is a huge challenge for many companies, as packaging was often just a purchased item in the past. Now they have to deal with the legal requirements and the issue of sustainability. And packaging suddenly takes on a product-like significance. The issue is therefore extremely complex today.”

Listening more to science

A lot still needs to change when it comes to packaging, says the industrial engineer. “Unfortunately, there is still this polarised positioning, which we should have moved on from long ago. We still hear too often that paper is better than plastic and glass is more sustainable than metal. These statements are simply annoying. We should instead be asking what each material can do and where it can be used optimally. And how it ultimately fits ideally into the circular economy. There is a lot of misinformation out there and unfortunately, people still listen far too little to science.” Sonja Bähr also wants to sensitise people to question things and not simply accept statements.

“Who is saying something, for what reason, what is behind it and who benefits from it – that should be the question. Many statements are not neutral. In addition to my work at Tilisco, I have a teaching position at the Berlin University of Applied Sciences and discuss precisely these topics with the students. I want to motivate them to form their own opinions and to look to the right and left.”

Too few women in management positions

The committed packaging expert is on the road at many events and always has questions and comments in her luggage or is on the podium as a speaker herself. “At the recent Dresden Packaging Conference, I was struck by how many women were on stage as speakers. Especially young women from start-ups. This shouldn’t be worth mentioning, it should be the norm. Unfortunately, we are not there yet, it will take some time. There has long been a balanced ratio of women and men in packaging technology degree programmes. It is positive when many women opt for a technical degree programme. However, there is a big gap when you look at the management levels. Here, family planning still comes before a career. However, the shortage of skilled labour in both large corporations and medium-sized companies is currently ensuring that more women are taking on higher positions. And it is forcing companies to keep women there. I hope that it will become a sure-fire success and that many more women will take on management roles in the future.”