Packaging may not strike anyone as a particularly mystical industry, but in a world where technology seems to change by the second, the fact that the most commonly used thermoformed packaging material has remained more or less constant for over 25 years is a trick that not many industries can match.

Nigel Coates, managing director of thermoformed packaging specialist LVF, talks the magic of rPET with Confectionery Production.

“No matter where you look or what avenue of life you decide to wander down, technology is ever present.

Just take a moment to look around. If you’re at home, you’ll undoubtedly have a slim television set hanging on a wall. If you’re at work you’ll be surrounded by PCs, laptops or tablets. And no matter where you are your mobile phone will surely be no more than a couple of feet away.

Now think back to the late 1980s, when recycled PET sheet – or polyethylene terephthalate if we’re giving it its Sunday name – first started to be used for thermoforming applications.

Back then your TV would have been a box in the corner of your room that gave you access to just three or four channels, using the telephone when you weren’t at home or work meant either being armed with a pocketful of change or dragging around a transportable, which was anything but, and lest we forget – the Internet, as we know it, hadn’t been invented.

Nip forwards two and half decades and everything’s changed.

Well, nearly everything.

The thermoformed packaging industry still makes use of the recycled PET sheet it introduced to the world back in the days when nobody knew that going into a tunnel would cause so many communication problems for future generations.
Yes, it’s kept up with the times by becoming greener and being given a marketing friendly name, but at the end of the day, recycled PET or rPET has stood the test of time and resisted the winds of change that have blown through virtually every other avenue of our lives. The big question is; how on earth did it happen?

To answer that it’s worth filling in the back story.

PET was first introduced into the packaging industry as early as the 1950s and by the early 80s PET recycling had begun in earnest – although mainly within the textile industry. It took until the end of the decade for PET recycling in pellet form to begin, which signalled the birth of PET sheet extrusion for the thermoformed packaging industry.

Its impact was immediate. It was seen as ideal for a multitude of packaging applications, in particular confectionery, due to its impressive levels of rigidity and clarity. And when combined with its low production costs, it swiftly became obvious choice for packaging manufacturers. Meanwhile, the more forward thinking felt its use of a high proportion of recycled material was another important benefit.

It took another ten years and the start of a new millennium for the only major change in PET to occur.

As a result of growing climate concerns, everyone’s focus had shifted towards finding greener, more sustainable solutions – and nowhere more so than in the packaging industry, which as we all know is highlighted time and again as the pin-up industry for wastefulness.

The end result of this was rPET – an even greener version of its big brother. For PET to earn the upgrade to a lower-case ‘r’ in front of its name, it must contain a minimum of 50 per cent post-consumer waste.

The waste used in the manufacturing of rPET tends to come from recycled water bottles and trays, which are collected, sorted and processed to ensure compliance with the legislation governing plastics that come into direct contact with food. And what’s more, the rPET process ensures the continued recycling of post-consumer waste and so reduces the amount of plastic packaging being sent to landfill.

PET and now rPET had the market cornered. They had great rigidity and clarity, a nigh on unbeatable price point, uses across a wide range of different markets, and because of their impressive green credentials, were ideal for retailers wanting to be seen doing their bit for the environment. Yes there were and still are alternatives, but PVC, HIPS (High Impact Polystyrene) and OPS (Oriented Polystyrene) all have their drawbacks and simply cannot compete on either cost, greenness or versatility and so have fallen into decline . And today if you look at almost any confectionary product in the UK it is almost a certainty that it will be packaged in rPET. In terms of confectionary, we’ve produced rPET solutions for everything from Lindt Lindor Easter Eggs to Border Biscuit packs, Co-op own brand chocolate hearts through to Peppa Pig branded chocolate treats.

But what of the competition? Surely someone somewhere must have come up with a breakthrough that would enable the packaging industry to leave behind an invention of the 1980s and taken a giant stride into the technologically advanced world of the here and now?

Many have tried. There’s no doubt about that. Over the years alternative bioplastics and food-based plastics have been developed and launched with great fanfare.

Amongst them have been solutions derived from maze, corn starch and even bamboo, and while it would be natural to assume that natural plastics would have an advantage over rPET that simply hasn’t been the case.

First and foremost, these natural plastics have been mechanically inferior – often suffering as a result of comparatively low melting points, poor rigidity or lack of clarity.

But those concerns are minor when stacked up against the big sticking points

First of all, there are no recognised recycling streams for plant based plastics, which means they effectively become a contaminant that needs to be separated from recyclable PET.

On top of that, the production of plant based plastics, although sustainable, requires the use of land to grow the crop – land that could otherwise be used for food production

And the cherry on top of the pie, is that many of the crops grown for the purpose of plant based plastics are GM modified, which is now deemed wholly unacceptable in virtually every walk of life.

Rather than looking to displace rPET with an entirely new plant based material, Coca Cola has recently introduced PlantBottle, which is aimed at combining the benefits of rPET with bioplastics. Up to 22.5 per cent of the PET is derived directly from plant waste, with the remainder coming from a combination of rPET and Virgin polymer, which is derived from oil.

With Coca Cola’s financial clout, PlantBottle and the material being used in its manufacture seem to have the potential for success, but whether this occurs depends very much on the retailers.

What they have at present is a tried, trusted, cost-effective solution that has the added benefit of ticking all the green boxes. Why then should they jump to another ship?

At no stage during any of their brief cameos was I ever asked or advised by a client to move from PET or rPET to one of the new food-based plastics. And until such time as PlantBottle or a future variant is able to demonstrate that its credentials outstrip rPET, then the thermoformed packaging industry will continue to stand proudly beside its champion of 25-years standing. And evolving technology be damned.”