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Danone examines PLA under the same microscope as conventional plastics

Danone examines PLA under the same microscope as conventional plastics, Danone, NatureWorks, Innovation Takes Root, Asia packaging
One brand owner’s presentation at Innovation Takes Root 2014 opens up a whole new way of examining (or judging) the renewable bio-based polymer, PLA.

In May 2011, Danone announced that it had switched to NatureWorks’ Ingeo PLA plastic for its Activia yogurt in Germany. On the first day of the Innovation Takes Root conference, Guuerino Madeddu, Rigid Plastic Upstream Quality, Development and Services Americas, Danone, shared the French dairy giant’s experience in converting yogurt form-fill-seal (FFS) cup packaging from polystyrene (PS) to PLA.

The main driver pushing Danone to look for alternative packaging materials was what Madeddu described as the “oligopolistic situation” of PS, which the company has using as a material for more than 50% of its packaging in FFS production.

“PS is no longer a strategic asset,” said Madeddu, explaining that increasing market consolidation in the PS sector in recent years has made the material “more tricky to handle”.

In 2013 alone, the significant PS price increase cost Danone an astonishing additional EUR 20 million in material costs.

However, even before 2011, Danone had anticipated the PS market consolidation and had suspicions about capacity management. This led Danone to examine alternative packaging materials - in particular PET, PP, and PLA. One of the main considerations for the company was finding a material that would be compatible with its existing FFS machines – all 270 units around the world.

For Danone, FFS is its preferred technology because of the quality, while an FFS cup is also 60% less expensive than a preformed cup, as is the lid for a FFS cup. Machines can be run by one operator, reducing manpower costs. The technology also allows for multipacks without overwrap, reducing materials, and offers greater flexibility for label printing.

Other factors that Danone had to consider in choosing a potential alternative material was its ability to handle in-mold labelling, which the company heavily uses, as well as label heat sealing.

PET was found to have ‘snapability’ issues which impacted on the Active multi-pack format, while PP had problems relating to its thermal properties, mechanical performance, lack of transparency, and machinability.

PLA on the other hand, met all the packaging production requirements, save for hot-filling – an issue that both NatureWorks and Danone are still trying to resolve together. Apart from hot-fill, PLA ticked all the right boxes for Danone, in terms of safety, consumer acceptance, and its short-term and mid-term competitively.

“PLA is the most accessible material to run on Danone equipment,” declared Madeddu.

Interestingly, the most striking point of Madeddu’s 35-slide presentation was that nowhere did words such as “sustainability”, “environment”, or “carbon footprint” appear - the focus remained exclusively on product performance, technology and functionality of PLA (or in this case, NatureWorks’ Ingeo resin).

When Danone’s shift from polystyrene to PLA packaging for Activia was first announced at Interpack 2011, I remember much of the PR hype was about how the product’s packaging carbon footprint would be improved by 25%, and cut its use of hydrocarbons by around 43%, and for a number of years much of the focus remained on the sustainable benefits of PLA, or lack thereof depending on which side of the whole debate you are on.

It is a debate that is still on-going, in particular with cellulose feedstock sourcing and end-of-life management. And I expect it will continue for many more years to come. After all, the main selling point of PLA that companies such as NatureWorks are touting is its environmental sustainability.

Now, thankfully, the discussion is moving on as Danone, and many of the other brand owner and converter speakers at Innovation Takes Root 2014 turn the focus on PLA’s technical functionality. It is almost as though PLA is now being treated as (gasp!) a ‘normal commodity’ plastic.

Personally, I have some issues with PLA end-of-life management, particularly in Asia; I think it is a little disappointing that not enough is being said or done about PLA waste recycling or composting, and I find the common line about how PLA does no harm in landfills inadequate and superficial.

But let’s face it: those same arguments can and are being said of fossil-based plastics. The difference is that where front-of-life is concerned, PLA resins have a better environmental record than those derived from petrochemicals. Which in my book makes PLA a resin worth considering.

Maybe it is time to put PLA on the same plane as other ‘conventional’ plastics, like Danone did when considering alternative packaging material for its Activia yogurt cups, and focus on the functionality and performance requirements of packaging, remove the ‘sustainability’ factor and benchmark it against the conventional options.


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