Performance and Value

“Without performance and value, it doesn’t matter how sustainable you are,” says Plantic’s CEO, Brendan Morris. That might sound at odds with his claim that sustainability is what differentiates Plantic from traditional packaging companies, but his point is simply that, on its own, the sustainable nature of a product won’t deliver market share.

He should know. Plantic’s R1 and HP1 plastics are used to make the trays in biscuit packs and chocolate boxes. They have impressive sustainability credentials, being plant-based, water soluble and fully biodegradable. They also take less energy to make, but functionally they perform just like standard packaging. The result is that market penetration is low and R1 and HP1 only constitute about 20% of Plantic’s production.

On the other hand Plantic eco Plastic™ also ranks well on the sustainability scale, but as Brendan points out, “it’s unique, it does a better job than other products that are currently available, provides better value and it comes from a sustainable resource.”

Special kernels

Plantic’s products primarily consist of the amylose component of corn starch that comes from a specially developed, non-genetically modified high amylose strain of corn. Plantic developed the patented technology that allows amylose to be used in much the same way as standard thermoplastics.

However, the water solubility is a challenge in applications such as meat packaging, so Plantic created Plantic eco Plastic™ – a sandwich of corn-based product between two thin layers of traditional plastics. This results in a product that can handle moist foods and has much lower gas permeability than competing products. Gases are the problem. They often accelerate food spoilage, and by keeping the gas mixture in or out of packaged foods, shelf-life can be extended and food wastage can be significantly reduced.

Bio-sourced vs biodegradable

At first glance the inclusion of polyethylene into the product might appear to tarnish its green image. But Plantic offer the option of using polyethylene sourced from sugar cane (via ethanol) for customers wanting a plastic that boasts over 90% renewable content. Incidentally, both the corn and sugar cane sequester carbon dioxide from the air as they grow and therefore assist the reduction of greenhouse gasses. This version comes at a price premium of 10-12% over eco Plastic made with polyethylene sourced from fossil fuels, however. “It may not sound like much,” says Brendan, “but when you are talking about millions of product packs it adds up. Hopefully as the green polyethylene reaches scale the cost difference will be reduced.”

Either way, the environmental results are better than for traditional barrier packaging. The polyethylene incorporated in eco Plastic means it isn’t fully biodegradable but the middle corn-based layer which makes up 80% of the weight of the product will degrade. On the other hand the polyethylene component is just as recyclable as normal polyethylene, and eco Plastic is compatible with recycling processes. “Recycling involves shredding the plastics and putting the flakes through a hot caustic wash,” Brendan explains. “The middle layer dissolves in this process and just leaves behind the polyethylene.”

Plantic’s products therefore make a big impact on greenhouse gas emissions. Coles supermarkets have enthusiastically embraced Plantic eco Plastic for packaging much of their meat and estimate that this results in a reduction in carbon emissions of over 5,000 tonnes a year.

Then there’s the food thing

Sustainability can be a fine balancing act. As with the food versus biofuel debate the question arises: doesn’t using corn for packing compete with food production?

“To replace all of the world’s use of barrier packaging with eco Plastic would require just 0.5% of the US corn crop,” says Brendan, “and we are talking about industrial starch which is a by-product of animal feed production.” This industrial crop is therefore complimentary to food production by spreading fixed costs. When the role that barrier packaging has to play in extending shelf-life and reducing food spoilage is taken into account, the net result is positive.

Government origins

Plantic’s origins lie in the government-funded Cooperative Research Centre for International Food Manufacture and Packaging Science. Plantic was established to commercialise the fruits of the CRC’s research in 2002. In 2010 the then publicly-listed company was purchased and privatised by Gordon Merchant, founder of global surf wear label Billabong. Today the business employs around 100 people, mostly in Melbourne where the bulk of the R&D and manufacturing takes place. Some finishing of product occurs in Germany, and there are sales offices in the USA and UK.

“Our people take pride in the technology and its benefits,” says Brendan. “There is a mix of people in the company, but we operate a culture of engagement that encourages employees to engage between departments, enabling cooperation, innovation and output to flourish.” Production capacity increased four-fold in May 2012, and Plantic’s price and performance advantages have seen sales doubling and tripling on an annual basis in recent years.

Not finished yet

Despite such impressive growth, Plantic isn’t resting on its laurels. “We’re not finished yet and we are working towards a fully biodegradable version of eco Plastic,” says Brendan. It’s a goal that’s supported by a $2 million annual investment in R&D.

“Sustainability is very much a part of who we are,” Brendan reiterates. “Internally we have projects running to reduce and reuse more of our own waste.” But it is a pragmatic approach, and Brendan’s ascent to CEO through the roles of CFO and Finance Director give him a financial perspective. “It isn’t just about waste reduction,” he points out. “It’s also about efficiency and cost reductions.”

When oil, a finite resource, is the building block of current packaging something has to change. Plantic eco Plastic™ as Brendan describes is this generation barrier packaging, and will continue to evolve.

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