Thomas Brady feels like a lucky man. His firm, Plastic Technologies Inc. (Booth N4392), has been on the forefront of developments in PET bottles, a growth market for rigid packaging.
The Holland company includes design and engineering laboratories, a prototyping operation and a new preform production facility. Brady, who left packaging major Owens-Illinois Inc. in 1985 to start PTI, continues to build the influential company.
Brady, PTI president, spoke to Plastics News about the PET bottle market and difficulties with recycling. As new bottles are developed, those challenges become more acute, said Brady, whose company also owns recycling subsidiary Phoenix Technologies LLC of Bowling Green, Ohio.
Q: Do you think the PET bottle market will continue to grow at the same pace?
A: Certainly, PET has established itself as a leading-edge and contemporary packaging material. It has a sustainability. But I don't know about explosive growth. The kinds of things that PET has fit so well - carbonated soft drinks, juices - a lot of those big-volume markets really are already exploited.
If you're trying to grow something, you immediately jump to things like beer. None of us here think PET is going to overwhelm the beer market, as it did some of the other markets, which have much more compelling functional and economic reasons to use PET.
Q: What technologies or product areas are ready to expand for PET bottles?
A: There are things like wide-mouth containers that two or three years ago were not in PET because the economics were compelling in glass. But with the wide-mouth technology that we were involved in helping develop with Graham [Packaging Co. Inc.], the blown finish is much lighter weight and you can use 144-cavity tooling instead of 24 cavities. That all of a sudden is a competitive package. You'll see more grape preserves and spaghetti sauces in wide-mouth containers.
The most growth is in water right now. Right now, that's already happened, and it's already the preferred material. But water use will level off; there's only so many things you can do with it.
Q: What are the challenges that could affect the growth of the PET bottle market?
A: The key issues with PET continue to be what they've always been. Can you get something with barrier protection at a reasonable cost? There are all kinds of approaches out there that have some degree of merit. But the barrier question has not been solved yet in a way that is so compelling both from a functional and economic standpoint that it will jump the use of PET.
And the complication in solving the problem in a way that is economically or functionally appropriate is recycling. At least to date, none of the solutions that have been proposed have zero impact on recycling.
We know that if you make a multilayer bottle, in principle you can separate it and get all the material out. But even with the few multilayer bottles out there, the material doesn't all get separated out. If it ends up in the recycling stream, there's an impact.
Q: How can the industry balance the need for new bottle technology and that of recycling?
A: If we as an industry and as a society are serious about reusing material, you have to continue to look at what the primary packaging impact is. Whether it's barrier, whether it's color, whether it's decoration, you have to assume that it will have some potentially negative impact on recycling.
The other half of that is that we cannot just say we're not going to do anything different because of [the recycling issue]. But we have to ask how we as an industry are going to continue to evolve to better ways of reusing and recovering waste.
Our goal is not to prevent the package mix from evolving. Our goal is to figure out how to recycle as the stream gets more efficient and more complex.
As a practical matter, we look at that as an opportunity. Our view is that most capacity out there today to recycle PET will become essentially obsolete. The stream will become complex enough so we won't be able to use what is out there now for recycling.
Q: Can recycling be done effectively with PET as products get more complex?
A: PET has an advantage. We can literally remove the material and regenerate it instantly. The simple explanation for that is almost all other commodity resins that are used are addition polymers. You make them by adding pieces.
It's different with PET and nylon, which are condensation polymers. You take two chains and put them together, doubling the chain link through condensation. You can make food-grade resins, decontaminate them and cause them to condensate and repolymerize. That renews the molecules with the same physical properties.
PET is infinitely reusable. The question is finding enough and getting the glue from such things as labels or coatings.
Q: How are your customers responding to the need for recycling?
A: As you know, Coca-Cola is committed and Pepsi is now committed to 10 percent recycled content. Pepsi and Coke volumes together would require about 200 million to 250 million pounds of recycled PET, if they just do what they say in recycling.
Customers like Colgate-Palmolive Co. are using 75 percent recycled PET and have had a great success story. That's a great lesson for other companies thinking of incorporating recycled PET: to not think of it as punishment but as a way to gain a significant economic benefit.