Tim Sykes sat down with Olivier Lorge - ExxonMobil’s global performance polyethylene market manager to discuss their sustainability strategy in detail.  

TS: In your view, what is the current state of the plastics industry and how is it evolving?

OL: Plastic is still fundamentally strong and driven by strong organisation. A growing global middle class means that there’s a greater need to preserve food, due to people moving from agricultural areas (where they have easier access to food) to towns – this is driving more and more packaging.

So, the global market is looking pretty strong and robust. Polyethylene in particular is growing at 3.5% a year – for a 100 million tonne market that’s about 3.5 million tonnes of additional polyethylene. I would say the business side is going well.

But on the other side, there is more and more push for sustainability. We are working hard at making things better and easier to recycle and we are trying to develop solutions that introduce collected recycled material and put it back into packaging design.

As usual, there are a couple of steps. The first is reducing material - making things as thin as possible. Trying to reduce plastic use is always the best way to do this, reducing material by 50% is a good first step. We’ve been working on this for the last 20 years. 20 years ago, the thickness of heavy-duty bags made with our products was 200 microns – now it’s 100 microns.

The second step is making packaging recyclable. In the past there were a lot of multi-material components, especially for some food packaging applications. This was good at the time because every layer was adding value, but now we must rethink this to make sure that these products are recyclable. Every end-use has its own challenges – food packaging might be the most complex because it needs to be food contact approved so that it doesn’t impact the people using it. So, we tend to use virgin resin in food packaging. Compared to the past where we had a PE/PA or PE/PET structure which was not recyclable, now we’re developing solutions with our performance PE polymers which provide the potential for 100% recyclability, are resistant to bag drop, keep the product fully inside, have multiple ways of introducing barriers, and are printable - which is very important for brand owners when they’re marketing their products.

TS: On the subject of mono- and multimaterials, what are the key technological challenges that you face in moving to monomaterials?

OL: PET is a very good product; it has everything it needs in terms of stiffness and toughness. The problem is that it can be difficult to seal. PE is a very good sealant, but it isn’t very stiff. So, what you have to do is work with the OEM to design specific resins, as we have done in some of our recent products to increase the stiffness of the PE film.

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Another example, which we developed with W&H and the Armando Alvarez Group is a shrink film that includes 30% recycled material with 70% performance PE polymers. Then you get the holding force you need to bundle the product, you keep the stiffness to be able to carry it from your car to your house, and you keep the mechanical performance. This is an opportunity for us to really get organised, create a “shrink in shrink” recycle loop where we collect the old packaging to put in the ‘new’ packaging and so on.

It’s very important for beverage companies to demonstrate that they are taking this seriously – they were the first ones to push us to develop a solution. And, with a leading plastic film and packaging producer like Armando Alvarez, you can design a good, commercially viable structure.

The optics though can be too good sometimes, so much so that people don’t trust that the product is actually recycled. A story from the US – we were working with our customer to make stretch bags containing 50% recycled material and the final product was so glossy and perfect that the consumer couldn’t believe that it was made from recycled material and didn’t want to buy it.

The point here is to show we can do it, to say that there are three big companies that can produce significant volume for brand owners.