in this issue
By rethinking old ways, the chemical industry can change the world
3:33 PM MST | November 27, 2012 | By PHILIPP MOELLER, CLARIFOIL BUSINESS MANAGER AT CELANESE
I picked up sushi takeout for my family the other day and admired how each piece is its own hand-crafted work of art. I also noted how rolling around in a Styrofoam box destroys sushi. Then after the sushi’s gone, the box becomes a lasting piece of trash in our landfills.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans generated about 250 million tons of trash in 2010, and about 41% of the trash was paper, paperboard and plastic. 34% of the total was recycled. In comparison, the European Union (EU) recycled about 39% of its waste on average in 2007, according to the United Kingdom’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
With these statistics, our industry can help, but not with nudges and tweaks. We have to rethink. Re-engineering is what will make a difference. We can’t make significant improvements by only looking from the outside in.
For instance, like many higher-priced foods, sushi has special characteristics. We started with questions such as “can we replace the traditional plastic packaging materials with something more environmentally friendly?” Traditional sushi packaging is made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC). But PVC is difficult to recycle so it collects in landfills, and it’s not made from sustainable sources.
Then, it takes a dose of innovation to find the right solution. The Celanese team evaluated various materials that are already used today. One of the eco-friendly solutions is recycled polyethylene terephthalate, or RPET. RPET ticks a green initiative box for many companies; however, RPET products still contain virgin PET and are only up to one-third recycled material. This recycled material comes from manufacturers’ waste rather than plastic bottles consumers place in recycling bins. Also, RPET has a finite lifetime since it can only be recycled a limited number of times and will ultimately end up in landfills.
After a great deal of research and testing, the team found that Clarifoil diacetate film could be thermoformed and successfully manufactured into a sushi box. Not only is the cellulose diacetate raw material sourced from sustainably managed forests, the standard film can also be composted according to American and European standards (EN13432 and ASTM D6400). Cellulose diacetate is also 100% biodegradable so it doesn’t stack up in landfills. It is also approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
With some ingenuity and teamwork, the group developed a new film formulation, manufactured the new film and started with prototype packaging. The debut was at one of the most influential retail packaging shows of the year with consensus among visitors that cellulose diacetate is clearer and higher quality than PET, RPET and polylactic acid (PLA) that today are the industry standard. It makes the best packaging for everything from sushi to pharmaceutical products and even Easter eggs.
The chemical industry is positioned to identify problems of all magnitudes and look at them in new ways. No other industry has such power to change the way almost every consumer product is made and packaged – from sushi and pharmaceutical packaging to diapers and soda bottles. We can improve on foods and beverages from granola bars to energy drinks. And we can help build better structures – from the paint on the walls to the glue used on flooring.
It’s up to us to adopt new ways that are more efficient, cost effective and environmentally friendly. We can improve the world in which we live.