Perhaps because of the continued economic downturn, North American manufacturers of thermoformed plastic packaging continue to innovate but in ways that are in tune with traditional cost-savings methods.
While bioplastics continue to make inroads, manufacturers are rediscovering ways to repackage older materials, Peter Mooney, president of Plastics Custom Research Services in Advance, N.C., said during a June 28 telephone interview.
What's happening is that polypropylene is going to do well and PET and [recycled] PET are going to do well. [Polylactic acid] and the other bioplastics? The jury is still out whether they're going to work.
Styrenics are not going to grow very fast. PVC which is such a marvelous material is going to grow, but not as fast, because of the environmental baggage it carries, he said.
In a May report on the state of the thermoformed packaging industry, Mooney noted that after registering steady annualized sales growth of about 6 percent between 2000 and 2008, the value of thermoformed packaging from North American companies dropped by about 2 percent in 2009, and has only slightly rebounded in 2010.
Of 100 U.S. and Canadian custom and proprietary packaging companies Mooney surveyed, only 65 percent expect to see a sales rebound by the end of the year.
There is a glut of capacity, not only around the United States, but around the world, he said. For example, Mooney said, last year automotive companies produced 90 million vehicles, but demand was for only 64 million cars and trucks.
Uncertainty over the long-term financial impact of recent U.S. health-care legislation and the recent rebuff by world leaders of the Obama administration's stimulus-spending plans at the Group of 20 summit in Ottawa also are feeding business wariness, Mooney said.
He's predicting that a recovery to levels of the early 2000s will not occur until 2012 or 2013. By 2014, Mooney said, packaging thermoformers should see an average annual growth rate of about 3.5 percent, with the value of North American packaging thermoforming to be about $14.8 billion.
Non-food-related packaging holds the most hope for growth, with manufacturers having to account to consumers for a new frugality, Mooney said.
On the one hand, sustainability sells. People do seem to want to look for that and will reward companies that are genuinely or notionally sustainable or eco-friendly, he said. On the other hand, people are very concerned in this new age of frugality about getting value. They're very sensitive to the cost of the product that they buy.
Given the recent volatility in resin pricing, he said, most packaging manufacturers will stick with what gives their customers the most bang for their buck. Mooney cited Starbucks' recent decision to switch from PET to PP for its billion-plus cold cups sold per year as opposed to [recycled] PET or PLA as an example of consumer products decision-making that will affect thermoformers.
While NatureWorks LLC has a plant with 150 million pounds of annual capacity to produce its Ingeo PLA resin, and Telles finished construction of a facility to make 110 million pounds of its Mirel PHA product, Mooney said thermoformers he surveyed remain skeptical about bioplastics as compared with commodity resins.
Most companies, when made aware of the price premium involved with biopolymers, lose interest, he said.
Thin-walling remains the No. 1 way for thermoformed packaging manufacturers to cut costs, Mooney said, although he questioned its sustainability value. I'm convinced that it comes down to performance and cost, and the rest [of green marketing] is just a lot of noise and window dressing, he said.
But clearly, thermoformed packaging manufacturers and suppliers are responding to market pressure to develop green alternatives to traditional plastic materials; recently, several introduced new product lines:
* D&W Fine Pack of Fountain Inn, S.C., launched a new line of sugarcane-based tableware, some of which is available with PLA coating to improve moisture and grease resistance for hot foods.
* Pactiv Corp. of Lake Forest, Ill., introduced its EarthChoice brand of 80 packaging products including cups, hinged-lid containers, plates and straws for food-service applications. Some products in the line are made from Ingeo PLA. EarthChoice cutlery is molded from corn-based Plastarch resin, and the hinged-lid containers can be made from a blend of talc and PP or a recycled PET mixture with 25 percent recycled content.
* PET clamshell and two-piece food-packaging maker Inline Plastics Corp. of Shelton, Conn., is touting a proprietary process it claims reduces its virgin PET's carbon footprint to that of competitors using 50 percent recycled PET from beverage bottles.
* Personal electronics manufacturer Aliph is packaging its Jawbone Icon Bluetooth headset in a museum-quality case made from Kingsport, Tenn.-based Eastman Chemical Co.'s Eastar copolyester. San Francisco-based Aliph claims that switching from the original Jawbone PP packaging to Eastar material uses 68 percent less plastic than before.
Phil Barhouse, chair elect of the Society of Plastics Engineers' Thermoforming Division, said July 6 that sustainability concerns are likely to drive much of the future research and development of thermoformed packaging. Barhouse is market development manager for Spartech Packaging Technologies of Ripon, Wis., a division of Clayton, Mo.-based thermoformer Spartech Corp.
Cost and performance are still the major influences on the packaging industry, he said. The difference [in recent years] is that there has been a paradigm shift. Thanks to some of the new bioadditives out there, we no longer have a debate that is simply about seeing biomaterials as 'green' and petroleum-based materials as not, he said.
The biggest challenge facing manufacturers as they introduce more eco-friendly products is verifying their environmental claims, Barhouse said. Where in the past, bioplastics were often accepted as green at face value, consumers and competitors are pressuring companies to prove that their products live up to their marketing.
The framework is there to eliminate that subjectivity and that 'greenwashing.' The packaging industry has to continue to push for that. The brand owners have to look for and demand the tools and the data to drive those decisions, he said.
But he acknowledged that cost is still paramount to most packaging converters.
You see now thermoformers becoming vertically integrated with their own [PET] washing facilities and a lot of those folks are getting [post-consumer recycled materials] into food packaging. The challenge there is, can they get enough [PET] bottles can they get a quality stream?
Barhouse said lightweighting will continue to be an important cost-saving tool, whether in display packaging or food containers, as long as performance and appearance meet customer needs.
Copyright 2010 Crain Communications Inc. All Rights Reserved.