Sustainability is still a hot topic across the packaging industry and, as a result, manufacturers and brands are consistently exploring ways to improve their green credentials and reduce waste. Paul Baldwin, OCTAL's commercial director for Europe, looks at how PET sheet processing is enabling the reduction of its carbon footprint and increased ecology, without compromising on quality.
Paul Baldwin: OCTAL was conceived from the idea that the sustained growth of 'clear rigid packaging' requires a strategic investment in capacity and innovation with PET as the polymer of choice. Up until 2008, it was business as usual in the plastics sector until OCTAL came along with a remarkable integrated sheet-making process that fuelled OCTAL's growth and created a new paradigm in the industry. There were a lot of people who made resins and a lot who made sheets, but they were two separate processes, often in very different geographic locations. You would first need to create a pellet and ship it thousands of miles, where it's then dried and liquidised through the traditional extrusion process, and only then turned into a solid sheet.
What OCTAL did is develop the proprietary technology needed to link those two physical process together and remove the need to make the solid-resin pellets in the first place. It gives us a number of beneficial physical and mechanical attributes within the industry, and with regard to sustainability and a lower carbon footprint.
We're now a $1.5-billion company with our manufacturing based in Oman; we're the world's largest producer of PET sheet and, from a volume perspective, we are at one-million-tons' worth of physical production, split between resin and sheet.
We can make either resin pellet or sheet products, and the beauty of the process means that we either divert straight into sheet making lines or secondary finishing lines to make the pellets sold to more traditional technology businesses like bottle manufacturing.
We're now a global supplier to a significant proportion of household brands. Naturally, this has happened incrementally, and it was at the back end of 2008 where we brought our initial production up and turned our main capacity on for what we call the DPETTM process - taking a big leap up to 350,000t. Throughout the course of 2009, we brought our additional capacity up with more extrusion and resin making, and, by 2012, we'd risen to 400,000t of resin and sheet-making capacity. Forward from that, the next big stage was the introduction of an additional 600,000t of pure resin production and, at that point, when you include sheet manufacturing, we had the ability to produce more than one million tons in total.
Actually, OCTAL probably is the initiative. It was founded on a commitment to the principles of sustainability, and it is these principles that have shaped the development of our facilities and production methods. We're dedicated to improving sustainability of ourselves and our customers. We've shown an enormous commitment to invest in polyester from a global perspective and believe that it offers the most advantages to the customer, even from a sustainability point of view. It is the most widely recycled material and there is significant investment being made in the waste sector to recover it.
We're a single-polymer company and we concentrate on doing this very well. We're committed to deploying resources and capital to support the ongoing conversions into PET as there are many materials on the market that aren't so desirable with regard to sustainability. We always try to reduce the environmental impact of our product; it is already the lowest, but we're committed to reducing this even further. Beyond just creating a revolutionary product, we regularly commission independent studies that measure and evaluate our products and processes in terms of sustainability, and identify areas for improvement. We've certainly demonstrated that we know how to produce the highest-quality material, but with the lowest cost and environmental impact. OCTAL's unique environmental profile, with 65% less energy being consumed, makes it the PET manufacturer with the lowest carbon footprint, and provides it with direct access to large consumer packaging companies and supermarkets.
Trim waste is something that everyone does; it would be pretty scandalous if a company wasn't reprocessing their trim. OCTAL's DPET is very much what our focus is with regard to how we can offer the most advantageous way of reprocessing. We generate no waste polyester at our site, and pull everything back and reprocess it into another a sheet. Though we create very little trim in the first place, what we produce we put back into a standard-grade sheet.
On the actual environmental side, we have a lot of initiatives, and what we're looking to do is homogenise the waste stream to increase total waste reclaimed and, therefore, reduce the packaging footprint. Another way to do this is to go into product conversion, as there's a great desire in the industry to turn to products like polyester, which has had the most investment into recycling waste and removing it from the waste stream post-consumer. Therefore, the more packaging that can be polyester, the more packaging can have a second life.
This is something we've been doing for a number of years on a day-to-day basis. It comes back to the DPET process. If you look at the shelf life of a product, you're looking at the barrier properties of the material with regard to gas transmissions and water vapour. The barrier transition properties of the material you can modify and put in components to increase these, but in many types of packaging you have the thickness of the polyester providing the barrier. With the thermoforming process, critical areas such as the corners can be very thin. With the flow characteristics of DPET, we're able to distribute more material into these areas and increase the thickness. That way, we can either increase the overall thickness to raise the barrier properties or we give the ability to reduce the packaging by weight itself.
It is imperative that we keep up with the growing trend of PET by developing PET products that are environmentally responsible, and have greater mechanical and optical properties to displace other polymers. In the toy sector, the mechanical properties of materials such as PVC may offer higher impacts than traditionally processed PET. But due to our direct-to-sheet process, at the reactor level itself, we have the ability to change the performance abilities of aspects such as impact resistance, where previously less environmentally desirable materials were needed.
If you look at the mechanical properties of yoghurt pots, we can modify the properties at the reactor level to give a 'snap'. PET would not usually snap and the pots would be stuck together; we can change this to give the necessary functionality without detracting from other properties such as impact resistance. For that, we look at creating something that replaces the vast tonnage going into landfill on a daily basis; we've created a mono-PET that could theoretically be recycled like a bottle and be given a third or second life.
In terms of our own growth, we have made a significant investment in committing to large-scale manufacturing in Europe. So over the course of the next year, we should be seeing something very interesting happening in Europe - delivering to this market the highest quality material from across the globe and finding ways to improve the service to them.