The sustainability and perceived consumer quality of PET packaging were two of the most-talked about topics at the Nova-Pack 2008 conference, held Feb. 11-13 in Orlando.
Several companies touted new oxygen scavengers and additives for PET that can prolong product shelf lives and help produce bottles using recycled PET that rival the clarity of those made with virgin resin. But not everyone agreed on what ``sustainability'' means - or how it could affect PET's future.
In a panel discussion, Roger Prevot, president and chief executive officer of Graham Packaging Co., acknowledged the word has kept him up at night. ``To be solvent and to add value to what we do as a company - that's [sustainability] for me,'' he said.
But keynote speaker Breck Speed, chairman and chief executive officer of bottled-water producer Mountain Valley Spring Co. in Hot Springs, Ark., said PET producers and end users must demonstrate commitment to environmentally friendly practices.
``We need to get out front as an industry and get behind recycling,'' he said. A nationwide U.S. mandatory bottle recycling bill is the best way to go, Speed said.
Another panelist, Alcoa Closure Systems International Inc. President V. Lance Mitchell, said the sustainability debate reminds him of a similar discussion 20 years ago in PVC markets. Target Corp.'s recent announcement it plans to reduce PVC in packaging materials is only a sign of things to come, he said.
``We have got to come together as an industry on this topic,'' he said. ``I find it remarkable as an industry that companies like Wal-Mart and Target are setting the [PET] agenda and not us.''
Wal-Mart's new packaging scorecard took some lumps during the conference when attendees were polled using wireless handsets on a variety of PET topics, including sustainability, resin prices and growth end markets.
About 200 people voted in the anonymous, nonscientific sampling. Of those polled, about 76 percent said Wal-Mart scorecard criteria are too arbitrary and about 64 percent said cost savings to Wal-Mart outweighed all other scorecard criteria.
Two of the world's largest food and beverage companies, Nestle SA and Kraft Foods Inc., sent engineers, marketing specialists and executives to the PET event.
Kraft senior program leader Timothy Boyd said a recently introduced Kraft salad-dressing bottle reduces packaging weight from 37 grams to 30 grams, saving 3 million pounds of PET annually, as well as space in trucks and on store shelves.
``When you can have a sustainability strategy that's also cost-effective, that's the best of all possible worlds,'' he said.
Boyd and others stressed the need for PET bottles that rival glass in perceived quality among consumers and are seen as environmentally sound.
Tom Dilley, account manager for Perception Research Services Inc., said his firm's research shows 62 percent of people would pay 5-10 cents more per product for items perceived as green.
``And if consumers don't get it, at the end of the day, their choice is not going to be toward the environmentally friendly product [PET] we have,'' he said.
Some conference presenters said bioplastics, including polylactic acid, will begin taking a bite out of PET, especially if increased corn production for ethanol fuel results in a corresponding price drop for PLA compared with PET.
Robert Tremblay, president of consulting firm Plastex Solutions LLC, said in the immediate future, PLA's appeal will be to small, regional molders seeking to boost their reputations for ecofriendliness.
``It'll be a while before PLA becomes a major packaging material,'' he said.
Jim Lunt, managing director of business development specialists Jim Lunt & Associates LLC, said another challenger to PET will be Sao Paulo, Brazil-based Braskem SA's sugar-to-polyethylene process, rolled out last year, with full production slated for 2009.
``It looks, smells, feels like PE, but it doesn't come from oil,'' Lunt said.