Sustainability in the Thermoforming Industry


Savvy consumers and business owners are pushing for sustainability and environmental responsibility in all of today's manufacturing industries. Thermoformers, producers of primarily disposable plastic packaging, are at the forefront of the sustainability discussion. This is due to the seemingly high volume of natural resources used in production, and the amount of waste generated as it relates to a single-use package.

Ultimately, sustainability is about conserving the ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources. Manufacturing businesses, like thermoformers, can reduce their carbon footprint by applying green design techniques, using green materials in production, and implementing green manufacturing processes.

Companies like Universal Protective Packaging, Inc. (UPPI), a U.S.-based thermoforming company, have been very successful in reducing their carbon footprint by implementing green practices in all aspects of their business.

Applying Green Design Techniques

When a plastic packaging solution is in the design phase, designers have many choices when it comes to developing a green packaging solution. The designer can eliminate unnecessary plastic and lower energy consumption during production by simply using the shape of the product as a guideline for the shape of the package.

Reusability and versatility should also be considered in the design phase. Creating a reusable package will reduce waste and packaging costs thus increasing the value of the package to the customer and their environmentally conscious consumers. In addition, a versatile package that will accommodate multiple products in a product line will produce less waste and require less energy than multiple packages for multiple products in one product line.

After the package has been designed, the designer will determine the desired gauge (i.e., thickness) and type of the material for the package. Using a lighter gauge and choosing a green material will promote a greener package. "Down-gauging" or minimizing the thickness of the material is a common industry practice, and will not compromise the integrity of the package. This practice results in consuming fewer natural resources and requires less energy consumption during production.

Once the package design has been created and the material has been chosen, the designer lays out the production tooling. Plastic packaging tools are laid out in a manner where multiple packages are produced in one cycle. By maximizing a tool's capacity, thermoformers can increase machine efficiencies, reduce energy consumption and limit waste.

During production, plastic packaging is produced as one component as opposed to the traditional three-part packaging method. So, inherently, the process of creating a plastic package is a greener packaging option because it produces less waste and uses fewer natural resources.

Tim Ritter, UPPI's VP of Engineering and Marketing said, "Within the last three years, we have designed and produced over 500 green packaging solutions. We've been able to achieve this by combining green design techniques with lighter gauged green materials and efficient tooling."

Use of Green Materials in Production

The plastic packaging industry has several green material options to choose from when producing a green packaging solution. Recycled PET is the most commonly used green material with recycled HDPE and PLA as close seconds.

Recycled PET is created by reprocessing post-industrial or post-consumer waste PET. During the thermoforming production process little material waste is created, but what is scrapped can be sent back to the material supplier for reprocessing. The alternative is to take post-consumer materials, like water bottles, and reprocess those into plastic film. Recycled HDPE is reprocessed in much the same way; either from scrapped virgin HDPE or recycled post-consumer waste, like milk jugs.

"Recycled PET is a great green material. It's eco-friendly; it maintains the processing characteristics of its virgin counterpart and is readily available. So, about 90% of the material processed in our plant is recycled PET," Ritter said.

PLA is derived from naturally-occurring starch found in corn. Corn is an abundant, annually renewable resource, which makes this the most environmental material option, but further advancements need to be made before this material will be an option for more than just the food packaging industry.

Implementing Green Manufacturing Practices

Companies can easily reduce their carbon footprint while saving money by implementing green manufacturing practices. Manufacturing facilities require a great deal of light and are, for a three shift operation, in use twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. Updating a facility's lighting is easy and can be done fairly inexpensively by simply changing old light bulbs out with T8 fluorescent bulbs. T8 fluorescent bulbs require less energy, and no concession is made in the amount of light emitted. Also, fastening motion sensors to lighting fixtures will limit unnecessary light usage.

"By updating our lighting and adding motion sensors to our warehouse lights, we were able to save 230,253 KWH per year in our 68,000 square foot facility and eliminate 16 hours of light usage in our warehouse. These efforts alone have reduced our carbon footprint by 345,379 pounds," said Ritter.

It takes large machines and many kilowatt hours to run a successful manufacturing business. Consider turning the machines off when not in use to conserve energy and money. However, for thermoformers, this is a problem because the production process relies on high temperatures. This problem can be eliminated by installing quartz heaters. Quartz heaters reach the necessary temperature for thermoforming machines in a relatively short amount of time.

Geothermal heat pumps will also increase a facility's energy efficiency. Increased efficiencies are achieved because these pumps can move up to 4 units of heat for every unit of electricity needed to power the system. This results in a 40% to 70% decrease in energy usage as compared to conventional systems.

Implementing recycling programs for all your scrapped materials will reduce your carbon footprint. Thermoformers have the ability to recycle many of the materials used on a daily basis. In a closed loop recycling system, scrapped material can be ground up, and sold back to material suppliers for reimbursement and recycling. For cardboard and metal recycling programs, companies should work with their local recycling centers.

"We've always placed the highest priority on reducing our carbon footprint by promoting energy conservation of our equipment and minimizing our consumption of non-renewable resources. Each year, we recycle about 2 million pounds of material, about 44,000 pounds of metal and about 50 tons of cardboard. We've reduced our carbon footprint further by turning off machines when not in use, using quartz heaters in our machines and installing a geothermal heat pump," said Ritter.

As UPPI has demonstrated, green manufacturing practices will create an energy efficient and environmentally friendly manufacturing facility by reducing energy consumption, lowering overhead, and contributing to the conservation of natural resources.

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