RIGID PACKAGING: Eco-Friendly Flexibility

Environmentally conscious measures in rigid package production save money and resources.







By Anastasia Thrift
Managing Editor


Barger Packaging creates PETE-based rigid packages that can be recycled. Additionally, it regrinds much of its scrap material from package production.

Thermoformed trays in rigid packaging require clarity, strength, and sterility. As a prudent business practice and a sound ecological measure, “green” methods can maintain these fundamentals while cutting costs.

While pouch and blister manufacturers can attempt prototypes with corn- or sugar-based plastics, thermoformed barrier and primary packages require a more durable material. With its particular specifications, rigid packaging has so far appeared incompatible with sustainability methods.

Innovative environmental initiatives in rigid packaging, however, can take many shapes. Manufacturers may recycle material, conserve energy use, or even construct their product with renewable materials. Several companies have undertaken such programs.

Energy Conservation

To conserve energy, some companies are utilizing alternative sources. Plastic Ingenuity (Cross Plains, WI) has installed solar panels and wind turbines to decrease its reliance on standard electricity and to minimize its environmental impact.

Plastic Ingenuity’s rooftop holds 50 200-watt solar panels at its facility. The reduction of atmospheric carbon dioxide production has totaled 29,167 pounds since its creation. The company has also replaced all of its HD and T12 lighting fixtures with T8 fixtures, reducing power consumption for their lighting system by 66%.

Specific to thermoforming, the company has engaged in a heat reclamation plan. In thermoforming, air compressors and vacuum pumps are utilized for process air. These units produce a lot of heat, and a potential exists for losing it and wasting a valuable commodity for Wisconsin winters. Plastic Ingenuity has implemented a system to capture the heat and circulate it throughout its warehouse, reducing natural gas usage.

At Placon (Madison, WI), energy usage is also watched closely. In 2007, the company created a new system to conserve output.

“In our meeting rooms we installed solar tubes,” says Jennifer Mitchell, marketing communications manager. “These tubes transfer the maximum amount of sunlight from the rooftop to the interior for the brightest natural light and minimizes the need to turn on lights.”

Waste Reduction

Plastic Ingenuity’s rooftop solar panels are the start of a plan to rely on 10% of energy consumption from alternative sources.

In an effort to curb waste, Barger Packaging (Elkhart, IN) has created a paperless system to traffic office documents. Office desks now hold two computer monitors each, so files can be compared without the clutter of printed pages.

“We’re going paperless, and moving away from filing cabinets,” says Scott Duehmig, general manager. “The results are a reduction in paper as well as in ink cartridges.”

This reduces filing cabinet space, while maximizing office floor plans and eliminating the need for excessive storage space. Although the company remains committed to paper tickets on the manufacturing floor, they aim to do away with those as well.

Paper also plays a large role in going green at Barger and sister companies. (Barger is part of the Welch Group, which is a corrugated sheet converter that has six midwest locations.) The companies introduced a recycling program to reuse corrugated cardboard and eliminate unnecessary waste.

Placon aims to eliminate excess material from its rigid packaging construction. This step goes further to minimize waste.

“Our inline extrusion, available in some parts of our operation, allows a practically scrapless thermoforming environment,” Mitchell says. “PETE and RPET web-scrap is recycled and blended back into new extruded material. Any scrap materials that cannot be reextruded in-house are separated and grinded in a sophisticated line so the materials don’t end up back in the landfill.”

Recycled Material

Other waste-reduction measures come in the form of recycling initiatives. Material regrind is a popular, cost-saving method for incorporating environmentally sound practices into rigid package manufacturing.

At Plastic Ingenuity, all plastic scraps (PET, PETG, HIPS, PVC, PP, and all other materials) are recycled and saved from landfill. These make their way into new materials for the company’s plastic products.

“Our ability to recycle plastic scrap, [such as] internal plastic process scrap, back into the process is not only good for the environment, by not using virgin resin in all packages, but it is also good for our customers’ pocketbooks,” says Jason Crosby of Plastic Ingenuity.

Many customers of rigid packaging, however, hesitate to use such material. At Advanced Concept Innovations (ACI; Lakeland, FL), commercial packaging customers seem to be the only ones opting for this.

“A lot of people in medical, a good majority, are asking for virgin material,” says Anthony Soria, president. The rigors of testing and shipping rigid packaging dictate this preference, while other packages might benefit more from the process, Soria says.

At Barger, the company recognizes the fact that it can’t necessarily use its own reformed material in rigid packaging. “With a seven- to 10-year shelf life expectation for our end customer’s products, we haven’t seen any other polymer material that could hold up and be considered biodegradable.” Still, recycling initiatives have created renewable resources for, if not rigid packaging, for films and blister cards.

“We regrind a lot of scrap material, then it’s sent through an extruder to be reused,” Duehmig says. These wind up in blister packs, and enter the production cycle once more. “We do everything we can to keep everything in the system.”

Alternative Sources

Barger Packaging considers the carbon footprint that its rigid packages leave.

By searching for new ways to work greener, some companies have focused on material options. ACI’s Soria tells customers that PETG, glycol-modified polyethylene terephthalate, a clear, amorphous thermoplastic copolyester, has benefits over the alternative, PVC.

“ACI tries to steer our medical device customers to PETG,” Soria says. “We let them know that PETG is green-friendly.” He says that PETG can be recycled with the same process that PETE, which makes up most water bottles, is recycled.

Perfecseal (Oshkosh, WI) has also investigated materials apart from PVC. Depending on the application, the company will select appropriate materials.

“Perfecseal is using materials like APET and others to create more ‘environmentally-friendly’ thermoform trays,” says Mary Czarnopys, market manager. “The key is to identify the primary characteristics needed for the application and to match the polymers used to meet the needs.”

Corn-based material polylactic acid (PLA) has emerged as a potential alternative plastic. Although the rigors of sterilization for rigid packaging have been ruled too strenuous for this material, some companies continue to investigate its use, with positive results.

“PLA is by far the primary bioplastic on the market today,” Plastic Ingenuity’s Crosby says. “I learned through our R&D group that we have created a new PLA that actually improves the heat-deflection temperature and should significantly change how it is received in the industry.”

Plastic Ingenuity’s investigation could result in a new adoption of this product. These tests are still preliminary, but if they proceed the way the company envisions, significant progress could be made into utilizing these bioplastics.

Carbon Footprints

Additionally, energy management can surface outside the factory floor, affecting the production within. Soria has used his location to his advantage, by saving on heating costs for factory floors.

“When everybody’s burning all that heating, we don’t have the air conditioning on,” Soria says. “A lot of times we’re running pressurized rooms without air conditioning kicking in.” He has established sites in the United States and Europe, but he says this southern United States location is the most energy efficient and, therefore, most economically viable.

Others who have run ideas through research and development have turned their thoughts to overall conservation.

“We haven’t seen any rigid biodegradable material that can hold up to sterilization and the shelf-life expectation of our customers products,” Duehmig says. “But we look at whether the material is recyclable. If it’s not, then we look at its footprint.”

Sound Business Solutions

Going green saves more than resources. Companies find that this practice will save money as well.

One of Perfecseal’s goals to minimize environmental impact came with additional advantages. Czarnopys says that lowering material usage is a key company philosophy, with other positive outcomes. “Downgauging provides our customers performance and cost advantages,” she says.

Although the investment into Plastic Ingenuity’s solar panels came to $80,000, the company estimates the cost-savings over five years will equal that amount. From there, the money saved can be reinvested in production, or the company’s long term plan of finding alternative sources for 10% of their energy.

Placon’s Mitchell also confirms that they’ve seen financial benefit. “We upgraded the chiller system, providing a yearly energy savings.”

Barger/Welch has discovered that eliminating paper will lead to cost savings of more that $770,000 in the next five years. This is pivotal to maintaining Barger and six other sister-company locations across the country. The pros of sustainable practices help business’s bottom lines as well as the save the planet’s renewable resources. With this in mind, packagers can reap the benefits of thinking globally and acting locally.


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