How to Become Sustainable, Volume 1, Issue 1

How to Become Sustainable

Volume 1, Issue 1

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Renewable Materials

PLA improves its environmental footprint

PLA improves its environmental footprintMany people view polylactide (PLA) resin like NatureWorks PLA from NatureWorksLLC, Minnetonka, MN, as superior to oil-derived polymers because it comes from a renewable resource – corn.

A recent life-cycle analysis shows NatureWorks PLA production currently is nearly greenhouse gas neutral. In fact, the material’s eco-profile is improving. A peer-reviewed study, Eco-profiles for Current and Near-Future NatureWorks Polylactide (PLA) Production published in the March 2007 issue of Industrial Biotechnology, New Rochelle, NY, shows the PLA production process generates 85% fewer carbon dioxide emissions than in 2003. During the same period, it reduced fossil fuel consumption 50%.

Not all of the improvement may be real since the 2003 numbers relied on design specifications of the NatureWorks production facility in Blair, NE, while 2006 numbers were based on actual production statistics. It also should be noted that PLA’s score also benefits from the purchase of wind-based Renewable Energy Certificates via Green Power Market Development Group, Washington, DC.

That said, NatureWorks expects further improvements through energy conservation and process optimization and also is exploring ways to purchase green energy directly rather than Renewable Energy Certificates.

With numerous commercial packaging applications, PLA is probably the most widely used biopolymer at present. With volumes rising, the future appears to be bright. However, growth could slow if the demand for ethanol and other biofuels continues to drive up the price of corn and increases raw material costs for PLA. A related issue, the morality of using a food crop for nonfood uses also is beginning to garner attention from policy makers, advocates for the poor, who are concerned about the domino effect rising corn prices have on food prices, and others.

Finally, as with any new technology, the road can be rough for pioneers. Biota Brands of America, Telluride, CA, which helped develop an injection stretch blowmolded PLA bottle and self-manufactured the containers for its Biota® Colorado Pure Spring Water launched in 2004, is currently under bankruptcy protection. The financial problems reportedly stem from a water-related production disruption in 2006 and a dispute with its primary creditor, UPS Capital Business Credit, Windsor, CT.

NatureWorks PLA Timeline


Cargill and Dow form a 50/50 joint venture to commercialize polylactic acid biopolymers.
Cargill Dow starts up a 300 million pound/year PLA production facility in Blair, NE.
The first North American company to produce thermoformed packaging from NatureWorks PLA, Wilkinson Manufacturing Corp., Fort Calhoun, NE, begins production.
JoeEl Inc., Elizabethtown, NJ, twist-wraps confections in two-layer PLA film. 
Biota debuts the world’s first bottled water in a PLA bottle, which also sports a pressure-sensitive PLA film label.
Cargill buys Dow’s share, renames the company NatureWorks LLC.
Naturally Iowa, LLC, Clarinda, IA, launches milk in PLA bottles.
Polypack Inc., Pinellas Park, FL, introduces the Bio-Wrapper, a shrink wrapper designed to use PLA film.


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Source Reduction

Closures lose weight

Lightweighting or downgauging is an ongoing process for packaging of all kinds. The reason is simple. Less material means less cost. Although lighter containers are introduced regularly (see below), the highest level of lightweighting activity right now appears to be in closures where we seem to be poised for a transition to short-skirt caps for carbonated beverages in polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles.

Already commercial in Mexico, Alcoa Closure Systems International, Indianapolis, IN, has expanded the availability of its 28-millimetre (mm) Xtra-Lok mini™ closure for carbonated soft drinks (CSDs) and introduced a 28mm MB-Lok mini closure for cold-filled malt beverages. The former features a carbonation-protecting XT liner; the latter incorporates an in-shell molded oxygen scavenger to protect product freshness.

Available for 1873 finishes and under development for 1881 finishes, the short-skirt closures weigh significantly less than standard CSD or malt beverage closures, and make it possible to lightweight the bottle finish and, potentially, other areas of the container. The combined container/closure weight savings can add up to about 2 grams per container.

Benefits extend beyond saving material and conserving resources. Less weight positively impacts energy consumption for the production process as well as shipping of components and finished product. In addition, the new designs allow beverage makers to use the same style closure for single-serving and multi-serving containers and minimize changeover. Switching to the short-skirt closures necessitates some changes in the capping process. However, a capper conversion kit, also available from Alcoa CSI, expedites the transition.

Source reduction isn’t necessarily limited to short-skirt closures, deep-skirt, wide-mouth closures also are losing weight. For example, a 120mm cap from Innovative Molding, Sebastopol, CA, is 20% lighter due to a TaperStack design that allows the caps to nest so the strongest part of one cap (the top), supports the weakest part of the next cap (the bottom edge of the skirt).

The resulting stacked “logs” of closures make it possible to ship 40% to 60% more caps per case than traditional tumble packing, reduce distribution packaging by up to 60%, lower freight costs and minimize trips to the warehouse to replenish supplies. Since nesting also preserves the concentric shape of the closure and eliminates warping, closures reportedly seat more consistently on glass or plastic containers. A tapered edge minimizes chances of cross threading.

A proprietary convertible mold concept makes a variety of stock closures available because mold inserts provide a choice between a gloss or matte top and smooth or ribbed sides. Mold inserts also enable economical customization via embossed or debossed logos.

Other wide-mouth sizes include 63, 89 and 110mm. Switching to a TaperStack closure generally requires only minimal adjustment to the cap feeding system. Compatible with liquid or dry products filled at ambient or hot temperatures, potential applications include foods, beverages, pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals and chemicals.

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Ultra-light PET bottles move toward commercial reality

A weight savings of up to 40% is possible with new bottle designs from Sidel, Clichy la Garenne, France, and others.

Sidel’s Flex technology produces a 500-millilitre (ml) NoBottle container weighing 9.9 grams. The lightweight polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle with a snap-on cap neck finish relies on the shape memory properties of the resin and a rib-less design to minimize the material needed to provide sufficient sidewall strength and barrier properties without special resin additives or changes to the preform/container production process. Although compatible with various bottlemaking machines, the NoBottle container is particularly well-suited to the integrated blowmolding, filling and capping of Sidel’s Combi equipment. Sidel plans to introduce Flex technology at the huge plastics-focused K Show, which takes place October 24-31, 2007, in Düsseldorf, Germany, at Messe Düsseldorf, the fairgrounds that hosts the triennial Interpack show.

At NPE 2006, the national plastics exposition held every three years in Chicago, Japan’s Aoki Technical Laboratory, Inc., which has a U.S. office in Elk Grove Village, IL, showed an extremely thin-walled rectangular PET container for household cleaners and noncarbonated beverages. The 750ml bottle weighed 11 grams and was topped with a 20mm cap. Sidewalls are so flexible, the container collapses flat for recycling, yet it withstands rough handling without rupturing or leaking. The lightweighting concept can be applied to other container sizes and shapes.

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Sustainable Efforts

UK works on several environmental fronts

In the UK, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), London, UK, is working on several fronts to forestall climate change, reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, increase recycling and promote more sustainable practices by agricultural, manufacturing, retailer and consumer sectors.

A draft Climate Change Bill, the first of its kind in any county, outlines a strategy to move the UK to a low-carbon economy. It would give the government new powers to implement policies to cut GHG emissions, create a system of legally binding five-year carbon budgets to achieve a 60% reduction in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 2050 (compared to 1990 levels) and create an independent Committee on Climate Change, to provide expert advice to the government on achieving its targets.

For consumers, DEFRA’s Act On CO2 campaign includes a web-based CO2Calculator tool ( to help determine their personal environmental footprint and identify opportunities to reduce it along with a television/print advertising campaign encouraging simple lifestyle changes that have positive environmental impact.

Another campaign, We’re In This Together, spearheaded by The Climate Group, London, UK, a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization focused on tackling climate change, has been undertaken by major UK businesses to provide goods and services to help consumers save energy and reduce household emissions.

Household recycling rates have increased in the UK. According to statistics from DEFRA, 26.7% of household waste was recycled in 2005-2006, exceeding the government’s target of 25% and up from 7% in 1996-1997. In addition, the proportion of municipal waste being recycled or composted increased to 27.1% in 2005-2006 from 23.5% in 2004-2005. However, there’s considerable room for improvement. Only 20% of households manage to recycle at the highest level, recycling everything that could be recycled – about 60% of what is thrown away, according to a survey by Hippowaste, Southampton, England, a national waste management company. To boost rates, DEFRA is taking steps to achieve new targets that call for recycling or composting 40% of household waste by 2010, 50% by 2020.

For businesses, DEFRA is working with London-based Carbon Trust and BSI British Standards to develop a standard method for measuring the embodied GHG emissions in products and services so companies can calculate the impact of their products and reduce it. In time, this information could support a labeling scheme that lists carbon footprint information right on the product.

A number of retailers and CPG firms have signed the Courtauld Commitment with the government-backed Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP), to reduce the amount of packaging sent to landfills. The Commitment requires elimination of packaging waste growth by 2008, absolute reductions in packaging waste by March 2010 and development of strategies for reducing food waste. WRAP also is pushing use of recycled polyethylene terephthalate for both food-contact and nonfood packaging.

In addition, many UK retailers are striving to eliminate one-fourth of the 13 billion plastic and paper carrier bags used each year by the end of 2008 by encouraging consumers to recycle and reuse the bags and supporting bag recycling, downgauging bags and specifying higher recycled content.

About the author 
Hallie Forcinio has covered packaging-related environmental topics for more than 20 years, first as an editor on Food & Drug Packaging magazine and more recently as a freelance packaging journalist. “My interest in the environment dates back to a high school government class,” she notes. “I was collecting glass, newspapers and aluminum cans for recycling long before my community had a curbside recycling program.”

In addition, to preparing the TricorBraun Sustainability Times, she contributes articles to numerous trade publications including Packaging Machinery Technology, Pharmaceutical Technology, Managing Automation and Ben Miyares’ Packaging Management Update, the weekly e-newsletter that posts each Monday on

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