Plastics to gain from consumer packaging's sustainability goals

16 November 2010 15:17  [Source: ICB]

Plastics producers innovate as major consumer goods companies aim to reduce packaging materials and use renewables as part of their sustainability goals


Rex Features

Major consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies and retailers this year continue to pursue their sustainability objective of reducing packaging use and waste while increasing the use of more environmentally friendly packaging materials.

As part of its 2020 sustainability goals, in late September, US-based Procter & Gamble (P&G) announced plans to reduce packaging by 20%; to replace 25% of all petroleum-based materials with sustainably sourced renewable materials; and to eliminate entirely the use of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) in packaging within the next few years.

The company's PVC use is already down to 1.5% of all plastic packaging materials consumed by the company, says Len Sauers, P&G's vice president of global sustainability. "We want to get out of PVC mainly because it's not a material that's largely recycled," he adds.

The company has already reduced its usage of packaging materials by 300,000 short tons (272,160 tonnes) since 2007. Its long-term vision, says Sauers, is to have all of its packaging made from renewable or recyclable materials and to eliminate completely consumer waste going to landfills through either recycling, composting or converting waste into energy without toxic emissions.

"P&G is the largest consumer packaged goods company in the world today, and we recognize our impact as a global company," he notes. "Innovation and external partnerships are key in making this work. Our suppliers have already been hard at work bringing sustainability innovation to the table."

Other US companies such as Clorox, ­ConAgra Foods and retailer Walmart also aim to reduce packaging materials usage and waste. Clorox's first corporate sustainability report, published last month, stated several key goals to be achieved by 2013: reduce packaging use on more than one-third of the company's total product portfolio; aim for at least 90% of all products in recyclable primary packaging; and identify alternatives to PVC for all packaging.

Clorox has reduced plastic use for its regular bleach bottles by more than 5m lb/year (2,268 tonnes/year) and its lip balm and lip shimmer products under the Burt's Bees brand no longer use shrink-wrap plastic film.

In April, food major ConAgra announced its first sustainability goals, which include reducing packaging use by 10% by 2015. In the same period, ConAgra also aims to increase use of renewable-based materials from 45% to more than 50% and to increase the use of recycled content in overall packaging by 25%.

ConAgra says it has already reduced packaging materials use by 7,000 tons and eliminated landfill waste by 4,000 tons since 2007.

An annual US sustainability in packaging survey conducted by industry group Sustainable Packaging Coalition and information service provider Packaging Digest once again identified Walmart as the sustainability leader among retailers.

The study, conducted in October, drew 630 respondents, ranging from packagers, material and machinery suppliers, CPGs and retailers. Many participants stated that retailers and CPGs are driving the trend toward sustainable practices and not the consumer.

Walmart aims to reduce its global packaging use by 5% by 2013; eliminate PVC from private brand packaging; convert PVC clamshells to polyethylene terephthalate (PET); and either completely remove PVC windows in packaging or replace them with PET.

Walmart says it is still unable to meet its goal of eliminating PVC, owing to the lack of suitable alternatives for use in over-the-counter, tamper-evident bands, metal-can sealants and meat wrapping, among other applications.

In the sustainable packaging survey, 38% of the respondents said that the lack of alternative materials was their biggest challenge, while 49% pointed to raw material costs as a major block in employing more sustainable packaging. Others cited the inability to produce comparable quality packaging (38%) and incompatibility with existing systems (24%).

Major plastic producers Dow Chemical and DuPont of the US and Germany's BASF identify costs, convenience, quality and safety as the leading criteria that their customers still look for when it comes to consumer goods packaging.

"Leading companies continue to look for packaging and material innovations that can improve food safety and quality, provide increased customer convenience, improve sustainability performance and lower costs," says Jeff Wooster, senior value chain manager at Dow's North American plastics business. Among packaging materials, plastics make it possible for companies to meet their sustainability goals, he adds. "Plastics are efficient materials that provide a high level of performance with a minimal investment in raw material and energy use. For example, switching from metal or glass to lighter-weight plastic packaging can help companies reduce energy use and carbon footprint associated with their packaging, as well as in their product transportation."

Axel Grimm, marketing support packaging industry at Germany-based BASF, agrees that plastics are often demonstrated to be the most eco-efficient packaging materials.

"If plastic packaging were to be replaced by alternative materials, the weight of the packaging would rise by a factor of four, the production costs and emissions of greenhouse gases would be doubled, and the energy needed to produce the alternatives would be 1.5 times higher," he says. "Furthermore, plastic is the ideal material for providing physical and environmental protection."

According to a January report from US market intelligence firm Pike Research, plastic-based packaging is expected to be the fastest-growing segment of the sustainable packaging sector between 2010 and 2014.

"More eco-friendly plastic packaging will have a huge impact because it represents more than a third of the total global packaging industry, second only to paper packaging," says Clint Wheelock, Pike Research's managing director. He estimates that eco-friendly packaging revenues will double between 2009 and 2014, from $88bn (€63bn) to $170bn.

Revenues for the global packaging industry last year were estimated at $429bn, a sum that he expects to reach $530bn by 2013.

Despite the efforts of CPGs and retailers to reduce the use of materials in packaging, plastic manufacturers actually see these sustainability goals as growth opportunities for their businesses.

"Our offerings fit well with brand owners' sustainability goals," says Yasmin Saddiqui, global market segment director at DuPont Packaging. "For instance, we work with them to redesign their packaging structures to use less material while continuing to assure that the structure delivers required performance. We have solutions that enable the use of less material and reduced waste and we also have offerings that enable avoiding solvent-based formulations," she adds.

DuPont points to convenience and the need for better product protection as two major areas of requests from their customers. Wooster notes the same, especially when it comes to product protection.

"Our offerings fit well with brand owners' sustainability goals"
Yasmin Saddiqui, global market segment director, DuPont Packaging
"Rather than thinking of packaging as an expense or resources, it is more appropriate to think of packaging as an investment in protecting the more valuable merchandise inside that packaging," says Wooster.

BASF says it intends its plastic packaging business to grow profitably and faster through innovative products and expertise in applications technology. Grimm notes the company's €130m expenditure last year for research in the plastics segment alone, which accounted for 9% of BASF's total research and development expenditures for all business segments.

BASF's most recent packaging innovation is its biodegradable Ecovio brand, which combines an aliphatic-aromatic copolyester biodegradable plastic called Ecoflex with corn-based polylactic acid (PLA). The Ecovio FS Paper has been developed for coating paper and paperboard and is said to contain 74% renewable raw material. The Ecovio FS Shrink Film contains 63% biobased material.

BASF is expanding its Ecoflex capacity from 14,000 to 60,000 tonnes/year because of increasing demand for the biodegradable plastic products. The expansion is expected to be complete at the end of 2010.

This year, CPGs and food companies have increasingly turned their attention to bioplastics for their product packaging. P&G will use sugarcane-based polyethylene (PE) produced by Brazilian chemical company Braskem for its branded hair care products Pantene Pro-V, and cosmetics Cover Girl and Max Factor starting next year.

 "Our suppliers [are] hard at work bringing sustainability innovation to the table"
Len Sauers, vice president, global sustainability, Procter & Gamble

"Right now, sugarcane-based plastic is able to demonstrate that it is sustainably produced and has no trade-off when it comes to price and performance compared to traditional PE. This is a key thing for us when using bioplastic," says Sauers.

US food and beverage companies such as Coca-Cola, Frito-Lay, Stonyfield Farm, and Snyder's of Hanover have all launched products contained in renewable-based packaging materials within the past 12 months.

Coca-Cola is now using sugarcane-based PET in several of its bottled beverages, while Frito-Lay, Stonyfield and Snyders are using compatriot producer NatureWorks' Ingeo PLA resin in food packaging. Stonyfield's new bio-based multipack yogurt cups are 93% PLA, the rest being additives (3%) and colorants (4%). By comparison, Coca-Cola's PlantBottle packaging is 30% biobased, while Frito-Lay's SunChips bag is 90% biobased.

Stonyfield says the biobased yogurt cup replaces polystyrene (PS). "This new yogurt cup is something we have been working to achieve for years," says Nancy Hirshberg, Stonyfield's vice president of natural resources.

"Even without a recycling option in the early stages for these cups, plant-based plastic is already better for the planet than [PS] because it produces lower carbon emissions and requires less fossil fuel to make. As this new type of plastic becomes commonplace, the potential environmental benefits only get better," she adds.

Hirshberg says the entire multipack, including the paper label and PET lidding, is 81% biobased material.

US PLA producer NatureWorks says more CPGs are using its Ingeo bioplastic in an increasingly broad array of end-products. "The huge incentive for purchasing a bioplastic is the low carbon footprint of biobased content, not necessarily end-of-life considerations," says spokesman Steve Davies.

He adds that Ingeo sales are climbing at a rate of 30%/year. Fresh food packaging and food service products are currently the company's core business.

"Ingeo has come a long way in just a few years, including a maturing supply chain. Today, seven out of the top eight US thermoformers use Ingeo," says Davies.

SunChips bags: Back to the drawing board
US food company Frito-Lay quietly withdrew five of its six SunChips flavors packaged in compostable bags 18 months after being launched because of consumer complaints about the noise made by the bags.

Frito-Lay will keep using the bio-based bags for its original flavor SunChips. SunChips sales have reportedly declined by more than 11% over the past 52 weeks (excluding Walmart, which does not share its data), according to US market research group SymphonyIRI.

The bags, which fully decompose within 14 weeks, use US producer NatureWorks' Ingeo polylactic acid (PLA) in the packaging's outer print web film and inner barrier web film. Frito-Lay says it is addressing the issue and NatureWorks continues to collaborate closely.

"The new polymers have a higher glass-transition temperature, which is when a polymer goes from a harder, glass-like state to a rubber state. Because the transition to a rubber state happens a bit above room temperature, the bag is kind of crispy and crunchy," ­explains Brad Rodgers, packaging manager at Frito-Lay's North American sustainable packaging group.

While the naturally stiff polymer material could have positive uses in rigid packages, Rodgers notes that it can make for a noisy package in particular flexible film structure.

Frito-Lay says it will continue to work on compostable, quieter, packaging.

From cornfields to cups. Join us on our sustainable packaging journey. from Stonyfield on Vimeo.

By: Doris de Guzman
+1 713 525 2653

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

For the latest chemical news, data and analysis that directly impacts your business sign up for a free trial to ICIS news - the breaking online news service for the global chemical industry.

Get the facts and analysis behind the headlines from our market leading weekly magazine: sign up to a free trial to ICIS Chemical Business.

Printer Friendly