Belden, lumberg-automationusa.com
Delkor Systems Inc., delkorsystems.com
Dorner Manufacturing Co., dorner.com
The Dow Chemical Co., dow.com
FlexLink Systems Inc., flexlink.com
Omron Electronics LLC, omron247.com

Last month’s Pack Expo confab for packaging-equipment makers was surprising in two regards. Among crowded aisles and busy booths, equipment makers were generally upbeat about economic conditions. Many reported significant backlogs and no real slowdown in customer orders. Also surprising, packaging is starting to be viewed as a means of saving energy rather than being a waste product.

One aspect of this message came from Glenn Wright, Dow Chemical Co., Houston, Tex., commercial vice president, North America Basic Plastics. Packaging should be viewed as a waste reducer, he says, because it boosts shelf life and cuts the amount of product lost from contamination.

In particular, he says, plastic packaging has gotten a bad rap from consumers. In many ways plastic is a vehicle for reducing the use or resources.

For example, it takes about 155 lb of metal to package 1,000 lb of corn, but just 13 lb. of plastic can do the same job. And plastic packaging itself has become more efficient. A plastic milk jug, for instance, now consumes a third less plastic than jugs made in the 1970s.

There are fuel savings as well that stem from the use of plastic. It takes only one truckload of plastic bags to do the work of seven truckloads of paper bags. The longer shelf life that plastic packaging buys also reduces the number of trips to the store for consumers, he argues.

Plastic packaging has become more sustainable in other ways as well. It takes just 2 oz of plastic to deliver about 8 gallons of a beverage, reports Delkor Systems Inc., Circle Pines, Minn., Sales Director Peter Fox. Three pounds of aluminum, 8 lb of steel, or 27 lb of glass would be needed to deliver the same amount, says Fox. Plastic jars packcan use up to approximately 90% less material by weight than their glass counterparts, and plastic containers also use about 38% less material than similarly sized steel cans, he continues. And flexible packaging made from plastic or plastic-and-foil composites can use up to 80% less material than bag-in-box packages.

To check out package sustainability issues, Delkor, a maker of end-of-line packaging devices, had an independent firm do a lifecycle analysis. They analyzed lotion bottles shipped in cardboard boxes compared to the same items put in what’s called a Spot- Pak, basically a plastic shrink wrap covering a pack of containers sitting on a base.

The research firm, Allied Development Corp., found that the Spot-Paks resulted in 82% less material for disposal, used 62% less process energy, and resulted in the emission of 55% less greenhouse gases. Moreover, it took 11% less energy to transport Spot-Pak shippers to retailers than for the same products in cardboard boxes.

Says Dow’s Wright, plastic packaging now accounts for less than 1% of all fossil-fuel demand. But consumers don’t appreciate this, he admits, so manufacturers should work at changing consumers’ opinions. One way would be to create better end-of-life options for spent packages. All packages should be recyclable, he says, either into other products or just back into energy. The latter option is a must because it is impractical to recycle some kinds of packaging material back into products — barrier packages are one example.

Ideally, we need facilities that recycle packaging into energy — basically burning the stuff for fuel. This makes sense — the energy value of plastics is roughly equivalent to that of fuel oil. There are now 102 waste-to-energy plants in the U.S. According to Wright, we need a lot more.