While improving product features is a virtually universal ‘green’ strategy across flexible packaging, some converters are also turning to process and plant improvements to achieve their sustainability goals.

Interest in sustainable packaging continues to grow-or by some measures, skyrocket-and in response, many flexible packaging converters have developed thinner, better-performing films to satisfy demands for “greener” packaging. While downgauging, elimination of film layers and other source reduction measures are virtually standard in the converting landscape, some flexible packaging companies are thinking outside the box by looking inside their own four walls to advance their sustainability goals.

For some, steps toward improved sustainability are simple ones, like using 100% post-consumer content recycled paper in offices or treating key machine parts with nonstick coatings for faster, less harmful cleaning. Still other companies are practically reinventing the way they use energy in their plants or deal with waste and emissions from their processes. Whatever steps a converter might take, one thing is certain: Flexible packaging companies today are looking at many cost-effective sustainability strategies and realizing the immense potential these improvements bring to their operations.

Parts coatings cover sustainability

Keco Coatings, an industrial coating company specializing in the packaging and printing spaces, believes that one of the keys to realizing sustainability goals lies in the Teflon® coatings the company applies to printing press parts, including rollers or ink pans.

“Whether it’s a roller, ink or adhesive pans or anywhere else a company has a challenge with clean-up, we can apply any one of a number of Teflon coatings to help them improve their process,” says Megan Klinge, sales and marketing manager at Keco. “With regard to sustainability, we’re hearing from more and more people that they're looking to reduce or eliminate the solvents they might be using. Teflon coatings answer these demands because users can clean equipment faster and save money by not spending on aggressive solvents.”

Klinge explains that while engineered coatings have had a presence in the printing and packaging markets for many years, more and more companies are sending existing parts in for Telfon treatment or even specifying use of the coatings in brand new equipment. Parts sent in for Teflon coatings are first thoroughly cleaned, then beadblasted or sandblasted to give the part’s surface a texture that improves the coating's ability to adhere to the part being prepared. Finally, the engineered coating is sprayed on the part by hand before being baked at a high temperature to cure the coating.

“Our typical turnaround is five business days or less in some cases, depending on our production schedule,” says Klinge. “Compared to the Teflon tapes you see on the market, engineered coatings are certainly much more permanent, durable and cost-effective.”

Multifilm chief operating officer Dave Rohrschneider (left) and new business development manager Marcus Magnusson (right) review one of the dozens of blueprints developed for the company’s new geothermal heating and cooling system gradually coming together in front of them.

Geothermal: A packaging game-changer?

In early 2009, Multifilm Packaging Corp. in Elgin, Ill., was faced with replacing its failing 15-year old chiller. The logical step was outright replacing the worn-out unit with an updated, energy-efficient model that would consume roughly half the energy of its predecessor. But Multifilm president and chief executive officer Olle Mannertorp decided to pioneer an altogether new route to answer the flexible packaging converter’s HVAC and process cooling needs.

“We made the decision to go with geothermal heating and cooling,” says Mannertorp. “We had to do something about the chiller anyway, and geothermal emerged as a much smarter step.”

Mannertorp explains that while the combination of heat pumps and natural bodies of water in a closed-loop system for heating and cooling needs is relatively common in manufacturing, he points out that the setup his company installed is the first the local utility has ever dealt with and may be a first in the nation.

As is typical with alternative energy projects like geothermal, the upfront costs quickly dwarfed those of outright replacing the chiller to supply the plant's makeup air, provide coolant to the metallizer, extruders and printing press, and ambient air conditioning. But as Multifilm chief operating officer Dave Rohrschneider explains, conquering the mountain of high startup costs was simply a matter of his company’s doing its homework.

“We realized that, on one hand, replacing the chiller simply replaces the old chiller and saves us money only on the chilling process,” says Rohrschneider. “While the upfront costs of geothermal were about three times larger than a new chiller, we’re able to cover about a third of that with grant money and then save even more money on the chilling process and the heating and cooling of the whole plant. Our geothermal system will be far less complex from a maintenance point of view, too.”

While the concept of drilling several wells around its property and weaving a maze of pipes throughout his plant may seem like a daunting task, Rohrschneider emphasizes that in its simplest terms, the system is made up of just a few components-like pumps, motors, filters and heat exchangers-already familiar to most in the packaging manufacturing industry. The difficult part was bringing this concept into a manufacturing framework like Multifilm’s.

“Most of the long 15-month timeline was spent in figuring out and working with an engineer in drawing it up to fit our process,” says Rohrschneider. Looking back, however, both Rohrschneider and Mannertorp believe their decision was the right one, and not just because it’s a sustainable feather in the company’s cap.

“With geothermal, we’re looking at saving 25% to 40% on our total electric bill, and upwards of 80% to 90% energy savings on the chiller process alone,” explains Rohrschneider.

But why sustainability?

For many converters, what improvements make a package or process are often clear and take on one of many familiar forms-for example, implementing energy savings or other efficiencies, using fewer resources, introducing bioresins into a package or reducing the use of chemicals that contain harmful substances. But as Ron Hagemann, owner of New Composite Partners, points out, converters, together with their customers and retailers, ought to put as much time and attention into communicating their sustainability efforts as they do in picking and installing those sustainability tools.

“The biggest fall in this industry, especially around sustainability, is centered around what message we are putting out in the marketplace right now,” notes Hagemann. “We hear green, but that means a million things to a million different people and we need to do a better job of educating what we mean by these buzzwords.”

New Composite Partners sources, develops and validates bioplastic and biocomposite resins used in many plastic applications, including packaging. While Hagemann’s company naturally deals with implementing biobased, recycled or degradable resins in a variety of applications based on a retailer’s or client’s specifications, he emphasizes the company is not married to one technology, but is well-versed in the implementation and education of biobased and conventional resins aimed at improving a package’s environmental impact. To this end, Hagemann points out that knowing how to effectively use and market sustainable technologies is perhaps as important as whether a package or entire corporation uses them.

“If you’re using the word ‘green,’ stop to think: What does that mean to that purchasing entity?” posits Hagemann. He points out that emphasis on sustainability makes the most sense in packages or products where sustainability’s value is clear, like organic foods, pet foods or perhaps even agricultural products. “If I’m concerned about what my pet eats, I would look to see how things are packaged. If I’m in a specific sector of industry, like agriculture, I might buy products prepared with bioresins because I’m supporting my industry.”

SIDEBAR: Toray Plastics enhances processes, environmental profile

North Kingstown, R.I.-based Toray Plastics (America) Inc., a manufacturer of precision-performance polyester and polypropylene films, launched several environmentally focused projects in 2004 as part of an all-encompassing sustainability initiative. Today, an improved environmental profile now saves the company approximately 17 million gallons of water, 8.5 million KWHs of electricity, and 10.1 billion BTUs on an annual basis. Some of the steps may be considered small by some standards-using only 100% chlorine-free recycled, post-consumer waste paper in printers and copiers, for instance-or simply logical strategies, like films that use bioresins or source reduction. Yet, as the company points out, still other projects were rather sizable undertakings that delivered similarly sizable benefits, like implementing a zero landfill waste program, stepping up water conservation efforts or replacing/adding facility lighting components.

“Consumer product goods (CPG) companies rely on Toray’s thin polyester and polypropylene film advancements to support their sustainability initiatives that call for source reduction, and are aware of our research in plant-derived plastics,” says Rick Schloesser, chief executive officer and president Toray Plastics (America). “But in addition to those efforts, we have an ongoing commitment to create efficiencies that ensures operational excellence and a better quality of life for our employees, local citizens, and the global community.”

Several of Toray’s environmental achievements include:

• Zero landfill waste - About 1,000 tons of non-hazardous waste consisting of general trash and solids from an ethylene glycol distillation column no longer goes to a landfill, but instead is sent to a waste-to-energy plant, where it is burned and converted into electricity.

• Water conservation - Onsite wastewater-pretreatment plant effluent is reused as cooling tower-water makeup-water, saving 9,000,000 gallons of potable water annually.

• Lighting - Nearly 3,200 fluorescent lamps have been replaced with high-efficiency lamps and motion detectors have been installed throughout the plants, automatically shutting off the lights when no one is present.

• Recycled materials - Annual savings include 285 tons of wood, 152 tons of metal, 59 tons of cardboard, and 46 tons of paper, bottles, and cans.

Keco Coatings

Multifilm Packaging Corp.

New Composite Partners

Toray Plastics (America) Inc.