Eastman Chemical Co.'s push of its Eastar-brand copolyesters is taking shape in shrink film, appliances, biodegradables and shoes.
Discovered by Eastman in the early 1970s, copolyesters ``plugged along ... but didn't create the fire you need to go out and take territory,'' according to J. Brian Ferguson, Eastman chairman and chief executive officer.
All that changed Jan. 1 when specialty plastics - including copolyester - joined Eastman's specialty-focused Eastman division. Expectations suddenly were higher. Last year's introduction of a competing material from SK Chemicals Co. Ltd. of Seoul, South Korea, also turned the heat up a few degrees.
Eastman has more than 400 million pounds of annual copolyester capacity in Kingsport; Kuantan, Malaysia; and Hartlepool, England. The company has set its sights on nontraditional markets like shrink film and injection molding.
Eastman introduced a copolyester grade exclusively for shrink film two years ago and patented the material last month. The firm also debuted material for static-dissipative copolyester sheet in September.
The shrink film possibilities may be the most eye-catching of the bunch. They're being used to dress up labels for Gatorade and other products, offering the promise of increased sales, said specialty film and sheet business market manager J.P. Kuijpers, who spoke in an interview at Eastman's Kingsport headquarters.
``Graphics is a major factor,'' he said. ``Nestle redesigned its bottle for Nesquik [chocolate milk] and sales went through the roof. Now, people are looking to do the same thing for teas and sports drinks, as well as single-serve milk.''
Film made with Eastman copolyester offers a favorable 80 percent shrinkage rate, compared with 60 percent for competing PVC film, Kuijpers added.
Shrink sleeves currently own only 2 percent of the North American label market, but are growing 20 percent annually, much faster than competitors in pressure-sensitive, glue-applied and in-mold labels.
Eastman copolyesters also continue to dominate the rigid medical packaging market with a 70 percent share, since they do not discolor, warp or become brittle when used to package medical devices, instruments or implants, Kuijpers said.
In appliances, Eastman copolyesters are taking aim at polycarbonate, ABS and acrylic in ice buckets, crisper trays, vacuum cleaner parts, carpet cleaning equipment and blenders, said Courtland Jenkins, engineering and specialty plastics business market manager. Improved durability could give copolyester an edge in some cases, Jenkins said.
``If you've got 5 pounds of ice [in a bucket] and it falls out of your refrigerator, you don't want the bucket to shatter on the floor,'' he added.
Biodegradable grades of Eastman copolyester also are on the move, with the firm unveiling a new grade - Eastar Bio Ultra - earlier this month. The product is designed to improve blown film processing.
With more than 30 million pounds of annual capacity in Hartlepool, Eastman's biodegradable copolyester has met stringent government demands of biodegradability. When placed in a compost, 80 percent of parts made from the material will biodegrade into carbon dioxide, water or biomass within 180 days, according to films, fibers and biodegradables business market manager Julian Jensen.
More than half of Eastman's current biodegradable copolyester sales are in Europe. Although interest is growing in Asia and North America, Jensen said, Europe has the advantage of a more-developed compost market.
Eastman is working to make the material more affordable, to increase its appeal to American consumers and corporate buyers in lawn bags, disposable cups and plates, flower pots, agricultural film and medical garments, Jensen added. The material also may have potential uses with polylactic-acid-based, biodegradable resins being commercialized by Cargill Dow LLC.
The copolyesters have entered the PVC-dominated calendering market with Eastman's Tsunami-brand product, which can reduce total systems costs while providing a more environmentally friendly, nonsticking alternative to PVC, technology manager James Mercer Jr. said.
Material improvements - such as the one needed to meet calendering requirements - are made possible by Eastman's commitment to spend 65 percent of its research and development funding on new products, he added.
And then there are the shoes. Clear shoes made of Eastman copolyester hope to capitalize on a clear-shoe fashion trend that started in Italy and has migrated to Latin American locales such as Brazil, Argentina and Mexico, said market development manager Lisa Shumate.
Eastman copolyesters give the shoes, in a variety of heel sizes, excellent clarity and an unlimited range of clear tints that can be used, she added. The material also offers an advantage over polycarbonate, which can break.
The shoe application generated ``a ton of interest'' at a recent Mexican trade show where Eastman was exhibiting, Shumate said.