A successful launch of recycled-PET-based packaging for its popular travel and map software - Streets & Trips 2007 with GPS Locator - marks a big step for Microsoft Corp.
The company's 16-person packaging engineering team aggressively is going green by working on more green applications, including game cards and game packaging made from polylactic acid.
Scott Ballantine, a Microsoft packaging project manager, said the firm began exploring biopolymers in December 2005 when it established a partnership with NatureWorks LLC of Minnetonka, Minn.
``We knew that biopolymer is a step in the right direction and NatureWorks biopolymer is a small step towards being more responsible,'' he said at the Biodegradable Plastics in Packaging Applications conference, held Sept. 13-14 in Rosemont.
Ballantine said firms need to do a self-assessment by asking: ``Am I using the right materials, in the right way? Am I processing them effectively with minimal waste and negative impacts? Am I moving things around the supply cycle in the most efficient ways, inbound, through internal proc- esses, and externally?''
Microsoft has come up with six areas to consider: conserve, reuse, and recycle; reduction and disposal of wastes; safety first and sustainable products; environmental stewardship as part of business relationships; continual performance improvement; and responsibility to its stakeholders.
For packaging in particular, Ballantine said Microsoft's efforts include eliminating specific materials, shrinking the packaging footprint, and using recycled, recycling friendly and biodegradable materials.
Streets & Trips 2007 is wrapped in three plastic insert layers and a DVD case containing 50 percent post-consumer-recycled PET. Transparent Container Co. Inc. of Berkeley, Ill., manufactured the clamshell on a Sencorp 2500 in-line thermoformer with SmartCycle 150 PET films from Klckner Pentaplast in Gordonsville, Va.
Microsoft sends the clamshell cases to China, where the hardware is manufactured. A story in Packaging Digest reported that Ballantine said Asia does not yet produce rigid films made from 50 percent post-consumer PET bottles.
Since Streets & Trips 2007 hit the market last winter, the ecofriendly packaging has set the software apart from its competition, Microsoft said.
While conventional guidelines for packaging refer to its technical performance, cost, appearance and regulatory compliance, sustainable packaging has expanded the criteria to include optimizing resources, responsible sourcing, material health and resource recovery.
Microsoft is conducting tests on a wider range of bioresin applications, PLA in particular. The tests target three areas of potential use: rigid packaging like trays and folding cartons; flexible packaging including overwrap films and labels; and sheet such as cards and graphics.
With NatureWorks and the aid of other partners regarding print quality, Microsoft is commercializing PLA-based game cards and evaluating applications on other printed cards. Those tests also include PLA-based clear sealing labels, security-imprinting labels, rebate and marketing message labels and metalized labels.
In using biomaterials with thermoforming technology, Ballantine said Microsoft is trying to develop an all-encompassing tool for a package that has the same features of a clamshell. In conjunction with that, the team is evaluating the thermoforming features of materials including PET, PLA, PVC and high density polyethylene, with different recycled contents.
``We want to see how they perform as materials, in manufacturing processes, as finished products, at end of initial use and its recyclabilty,'' he said.
It's not a materials race between PLA and PET, Ballantine said. ``You need to find the right material first and do what makes sense for you.''
NatureWorks also helped Microsoft test the use of PLA in commercial wrap for DVD cases.
In that project, shrink wrap did not work since the firm required film with even better shrink properties.
Doug Kunnemann, North America commercial manager of NatureWorks, said the project, through Sonopress LLC, examined how Bi-Ax International Inc.'s Evlon PLA performed against oriented polypropylene, both 1 millimeter thick. The test showed the potential to reduce oven temperatures and film gauges.
To expand the test, NatureWorks also brought EarthFirst-brand PLA films from Plastics Suppliers Inc. into the project.
Both films were run on identical Wrap Star CM-5 overwrapping machines from Heino Ilsemann, and each wrapped about 15,000 Xbox 360 ``Fusion Frenzy'' games.
The standard film used in that application is an 80-gauge BOPP.
According to the trial results, the EarthFirst PLA film required a slightly longer time to set up a machine. A seal bar temperature of 257Ã¸ F appeared optimum, the package was nice and even tighter than incumbent film, and it picked up the logo very well.
In comparison, the Evlon-brand PLA film was easy to start up, required smaller adjustments in vacuum/tension/air flow to get running, showed a broader seal window (from 257-302Ã¸ F) and ran packages at 302Ã¸ F. It also picked up the logo very well, he said.
Kunnemann said that stacking arms on both lines required adjustments, and both films scuff, scratch or mar just as PP does on non-Microsoft lines.
``Neither of these systems are used for Microsoft products, but represent development opportunities,'' he said.
As part of the Microsoft-NatureWorks effort, industrial composting of the overwrap film from these trials is under way.
Microsoft is exploring other digital-media packaging options, including folding cartons, O-sleeves and blister security packs. Ballantine said the company has engaged many partners as part of the project.
``We need cross-industry project approaches. We need collaboration. We should involve everyone, have our suppliers meet customers and share what we learn,'' he said.
Ballantine said his team used samples of cosmetics from Estee Lauder Inc. and shared data on how PLA wrap applies.
Kunnemann said Microsoft developments have resulted in new programs for cosmetics, snack foods and other markets.
``At the end of the day, finding a perfect PLA wrap that works only for Microsoft is not solving the bigger picture,'' Ballantine said. ``I'll end up paying more because the volume is not big enough ... it won't have a big impact.''
Kunnemann added that while bioresin research and applications continue to develop, a biopolymer blend is probably the future of the materials.
Microsoft belongs to the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, a working industry group in Charlottesville, Va.