The past couple of months have seemed more like a time warp of packaging news from the 1980s than the 2000s. For whatever reason, I've had a number of reports and news stories pour in that relate things environmental; recycling, doing more with less, alternative fuels and other flower-power issues. A lot of this stuff is really cool, man. I have to wonder, however, if the folks sending me these things have not traded in their denim shirts and headbands for white shirts and red ties. In the 1980s, when we couldn't sell the green issues on doing good for the globe, we retrenched and showed how doing the right thing actually benefits the bottom line. That's when the environmental aspects of transport packaging began to get some traction.
Now, history is repeating itself—with the addition of some high-tech spin. In November at Pack Expo, I stopped to chat with several vendors of molded pulp products, figuring it would provided some balance after talking with all the high-tech RFID folks.
Molded pulp has been around for a long time in the familiar shape of egg cartons and end caps for electronics products. More recently, new blends of the material have made the finished product stronger and more esthetically pleasing. These changes have increased the product's appeal with shippers who realize transport packaging does more than protect the product.
New processes, using heat and pressure for example, can create more vertical walls for containers, add strength and give the package a clean look. Blending clean white recycled paper with something like recycled milk cartons creates an especially strong product. Recycled newsprint, however, still seems to be the most re-used material for molded pulp products. It appears gray will be the color of choice for a while.
And the machinery to produce molded pulp products has changed to accommodate the material, however that's a chicken-versus-egg argument according to some folks. Now, complex shapes and moldings are possible that were not doable in the past. Custom molding is being used to produce containers for automated processes. Electrically neutral container configurations for the electronics industry are becoming commonplace.
Some of the loose-fill products around the show were as basic as corn and potatoes— starchbased products to be precise. Like paper-cushioning products, transport packaging material derived from corn, potatoes and wheat have held onto a small market share. And while the appeal of these products has been limited, it has not deterred some big players from entering the scene. A relatively new product, actually it's been around since 1997 and is now getting some attention, is plastic made from corn. Its soaring popularity comes from fact that Americans are beginning to realize the choice is now Iraq or Iowa, not necessarily paper or plastic.
The material being produced by a joint venture of Dow Chemical and Cargill Inc., called Ingeo, is generating a lot of excitement for packagers and shippers. It's potential is great and new uses for the fiber are being discovered all the time. Ingeo (it means ingredients from the earth) is made from the fermentation of simple plant sugars. It saw its first successes in textile products.
It begins as corn kernels. When soaked and ground, enzymes and bacterial cultures are added, and more refining is done, long-chain polymers emerge. The resulting pellets can be spun into fibers or melted and shaped to produce protective packaging material. At the end of the container's lifecycle it can be composted.
Not to be outdone, DuPont Company has joined forces with Tate & Lyle PLC, a UK food ingredient maker, to produce a corn-and-petroleumbased fabric. Mixing corn with the petroleum is more economical as oil prices continue to soar. The fabric's packaging potential is still undetermined.
All of this is not new. Henry Ford, in the 1930's, experimented with soy-based plastic for car parts. Eventually, he created an entire car made from bio-based plastic. Then, oil was comparatively cheap. The difference now, in part because big bucks are involved, is that people are paying attention to oil prices and supplies.
Detractors will argue that all that corn has to be grown using fossil-fuel-driven vehicles. Plus, it's laced with fossil-fuel-based fertilizers and pesticides. True enough. Corn, however, will still be around when all that black gold has been extracted and the guys wearing funny hats are asking what they should do next.