Changes, advances abound in plastics

By: Don Loepp

September 21, 2012

I had a chance to catch up on new developments in the packaging market this week, and I have to say that there are a lot of exciting things going on.

I attended, and helped cover, the Plastics Caps & Closures 2012 conference in Lincolnshire, Ill. So the focus was on a fairly specific niche in the huge packaging market. But there’s still plenty to highlight.

On the materials side, the biggest story is the competition between polyethylene and polypro­pylene. PP is the reigning champ, and for lots of performance-related reasons it’s got a firm grip on the crown. But PE is making strides to catch up in a variety of applications. And the expected boom in North American shale gas should help build on PE’s usual cost advantage.

There’s a similar battle taking place in equipment, between compression and injection molding.

Molders themselves are helping to drive big changes in the market. Just one example: New designs for one-piece closures that challenge the high-performance properties of two-piece designs. That potentially means lower costs for end users. Plus, going to a single material might improve recyclability — which is a goal of many closure makers. That would boost the cap world’s sustainability message.

That’s just a taste of the advances discussed at the conference — watch Plastics News next week for more coverage. It’s good to see a market where plastics have such a clear superiority over other materials, and where processors, material suppliers, tooling companies and machinery experts have worked together to hone a product that costs so little but does so much.

And the caps market isn’t alone. This week’s special report on film and sheet manufacturers highlights another sector that’s seeing change and innovation.

Back in May, we featured a story on Hilex Poly Co. LLC’s efforts to recycle plastic grocery bags, and to use the material to make new bags, in a closed-loop program that it calls Bag-2-Bag recycling.

In July, we covered a similar but smaller-scale project in Kilgore, Texas, where Pak-Sher — a company that makes plastic storage bags, food-handling bags, deli bags and carryout bags — developed an incentive program to encourage school children to recycle. Pak-Sher used the recycled bags to make new bags — complete with the Kilgore Chamber of Commerce’s City of Stars logo — that were sold to local merchants.

This week on our front page, we highlight another innovative film company, Ohio’s Next Generation Films Inc., which is investing in equipment and materials research in its quest to make high-end products.

It’s nice to be reminded about improvements that are continuing to change plastics. It’s a sign that, even as the industry recovers from the Great Recession, there are still plenty of innovative companies that are investing in making their products better and more sustainable — and plenty of growth and improvement yet to come.

Loepp is editor of  Plastics News and author of “The Plastics Blog.”