Making exaggerated claims of a product's environmental benefits, known as greenwashing, can cause a backlash among consumers, an executive of Fabri-Kal Corp. told fellow thermoformers at the recent Society of Plastics Engineers Thermoforming Conference.
You need to be careful about making those types of claims, said David McIntosh, senior engineer of materials and development at Fabri-Kal of Kalamazoo, Mich. Fabri-Kal, a pioneer in bioresins in food packaging, began working in 2002 to develop thermoformed drink cups from polylactic acid.
The project led to Fabri-Kal's Greenware line of packaging, made from NatureWorks LLC's PLA.
Fabri-Kal has posted a no greenwashing pledge on its website. McIntosh said that in general, truth is gaining ground over marketing hype because of skeptical consumers and increased regulatory scrutiny of green product claims.
But McIntosh, the keynote speaker Sept.19 during the SPE Thermoforming Division's conference in Milwaukee, said overhyped claims are still a problem.
The consumers just want to do the right thing. So there's a lot of somewhat well-meaning and somewhat just outright fraudulent advertising claims coming from a number of different places. It's a challenge to deal with that, especially when we try to take the high road, and stick to legitimate claims that we can back up, he said.
McIntosh reviewed Fabri-Kal's development of Greenware. The firms's management was committed to adding a line of 100 percent bio-based plastic to its materials list of PET, polystyrene, polypropylene and polyethylene. And he said PLA was a fairly simple processing drop-in for PET cold drink cups ... on paper, that is.
The reality was much more difficult, including the difficulty of cleaning out PET material from older equipment, so PLA could be run, and avoiding cross-contamination since cups from both materials look exactly the same. There were so many ways PLA was different, he said.
McIntosh credited NatureWorks of Minnetonka, Minn., and Woodbridge, Va.-based Universal Dynamics Inc., which makes crystallizers and dryers targeted to PLA, for their help. Fabri-Kal also held companywide meetings with every person who had anything to do with material handling, including both resin and scrap, to make sure PLA and PET were kept separate.
Now Fabri-Kal officials believe they have the highest-throughput PLA conversion line in the world in Kalamazoo, with excellent product quality and consistency.
McIntosh showed slides detailing the fossil-fuel content and greenhouse gas emissions of different cup materials. He said Fabri-Kal's marketing approach is based on hard data, with minimal spin. Quality and appearance is a big selling point. PLA makes great-looking products, he said.
Greenware is a U.S.-made product from a renewable resource that cuts the need for petroleum, Fabri-Kal says. It also touts the fact that PLA is compostable, but only in municipal and industrial composting facilities, where available.
McIntosh thinks composting of PLA simplifies the collection of food packaging. Nobody wants to sort plastic out of garbage. They want one bag, throw it in there, make it neat, make it go away and compost it, he said.
McIntosh criticized what he called a common myth, that plastics are clogging landfills. He said all packaging thermoformers, by their constant quest to downgauge, are practicing sustainable manufacturing, but none of that sinks in to the consumer.
Most people perceive [plastic packaging] as just an icon of consumption, he said. He explained the thought process: I've got my bottle, I drank my water, I throw it away. Now that is waste! The fact that this is a more efficient way of delivering this product to the user, in terms of efficiency, cleanliness, resource reduction, doesn't enter into my mind. It's persistently perceived by consumers as just plain waste. So we can't whine about it. We can't just say 'Lookit, we're sustainable.' We've got to deal with it, and work to make an improvement.
McIntosh slammed the idea of biodegradable, industrial materials, including plastic, as stupid.
Why am I so down on biodegradability? It's not the answer to our packaging sustainability. This represents a valuable resource. To degrade it is wasting our world resources. And it really is just as simple as that, he said. There's no value in trying to apply natural systems to industrial materials. And that's the disconnect that most people just simply don't understand, he said.