Graham Packaging’s Deep Dive into Sustainable Packaging

Founded in 1970, Graham Packaging creates customized, sustainable packaging solutions for a wide range of industries including food and beverage, personal care, auto/chemical, household and healthcare. Its production repertoire encompasses extrusion blow molding, injection blow molding and barrier technologies using PET and polyolefin polymers.

As with a number of vendors, sustainability is at the forefront of the company’s initiatives. The company’s recently published 2018 Sustainability Report outlines the company’s plan to minimize the impact its manufacturing efforts have on the environment. Examples include the Graham Recycling Center in York, PA, where 45 million pounds of post-consumer materials were processed in 2018. In addition, Graham Packaging is a member of numerous recycling and sustainability organizations.

Balaji Jayaseelan, the company’s Sustainability and Regulatory Director, discusses the company’s advancements in these areas with PlasticsToday.

Please comment on the influence of sustainability.

Jayaseelan: In the face of today’s challenges, we believe in the importance of a circular economy—the economic system aimed at eliminating waste and the continual use of resources. Across the board, companies are striving to make packaging more sustainable using biodegradable materials, reusable packaging and eco-friendly fillers. The growing consumer demand for more sustainable packing options is pushing Graham Packaging and its customers to explore new technologies to reduce and eliminate barriers to recyclability.

What advancements are helping customers meet sustainability goals?

Jayaseelan: Graham Packaging began with the design of the first plastic motor oil container. Since then, we have continued to innovate in all areas of sustainable packaging. We engage in “live design” sessions with our customers where we collaborate to find sustainable solutions that also satisfy their brand requirements.

Graham Packaging has developed a new technology that allows products to achieve the look of a carbon black bottle while also being detected during near-infrared (NIR) sorting. The new process achieves the opacity of a standard carbon black bottle with the detection capabilities of noncarbon black. Graham Packaging then took this concept to the next level by designing a tri-layer bottle, which allows for a reduction in the amount of masterbatch needed to achieve the correct opacity.

Graham recently tested making bottles with varying degrees of ocean-bound plastic (OBP) up to 100%. We have also run successful trials for food and nonfood grade OBP and are actively engaged in discussions with customers to bring this type of container to market.

What initiatives has the company followed?  

Jayaseelan: Graham Packaging is partnered with a number of organizations that are committed to creating a circular economy. In 2019, we pledged with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Global Commitment that by 2025 all our plastic packaging will be reusable or recycled and that all our packaging contains at least 20% post-consumer resin (PCR) by 2025.

We also serve on the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) PET and Olefin Technical Committees and are members of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. The company also donates to The Recycling Partnership while working alongside the organization in fighting to keep plastic out of landfills. Graham also plays an active role in the Department of Energy Better Plants Program—committing to 25% plant-wide energy savings in 10 years.

 

What changes has Graham made internally in terms of its equipment, processes and systems?
Jayaseelan: Graham Packaging uses many different technologies throughout the design process. There is never one tool that gives a complete answer, but rather a combination of our design team and technology that allows us to develop unique, sustainable solutions for our customers. Our design team is successful because they combine art, communication, engineering, technology and manufacturing in the development of custom packaging solutions.

Graham also recently developed an app to serve as a crowd-sourcing tool for innovation. The app allows Graham’s vast, global employee network to upload images of packaging during their everyday lives such as shopping, dining, etc., in an effort to accelerate the company’s innovation process.

How have preferences in polymers and container design changed?

Jayaseelan: Graham Packaging design engineers continuously seek out new ways to make their packaging more sustainable while continuing to provide dramatic shelf appeal to satisfy the product marketing teams. Using our patented ThermaSet technology, we introduced a plastic spaghetti sauce jar to a major grocery retailer that delivers 38% less global warming potential (GWP), 16% less energy use, 55% less acidification, 93% less particulate matter and 55% less smog compared to glass spaghetti jars. These were the findings of Aspire Sustainability, an independent life-cycle assessment research firm based in Colorado, that conducted the study on behalf of Graham Packaging (See Graham Packaging picks up second award for its PET jars, published June 2016).

What challenges are there in your markets?

Jayaseelan: As a global packaging company, we are seeing challenges with obtaining recycled content—particularly in the European market—to get a sufficient supply of food-grade material to satisfy Europe’s more stringent recycling laws. Due to this lack of access, manufacturers like Graham Packaging are turning to alternative streams—one being from post-industrial Recycling (PIR), which is waste generated from the original manufacturing process that is used again in the same material. For the manufacturer, PIR often requires less energy to convert material into a new, usable package.

What role do biopolymers have?

Jayaseelan: Graham Packaging is actively seeking both bio-based resins and biodegradable resins for use in products. About seven years ago, we partnered with a customer to create a resin made mostly of sugar cane, and we became one of the first companies to take this type of product into large-scale production. We made roughly three billion bottles using this bio-based resin, which is now widely used in the industry.

Where are things heading?

Jayaseelan: Sustainability is not a trend, it’s a mission-critical part of every business today. It must be an integrated part of every brand’s strategy and not just on the shelf, but throughout the entire business. While we continue to innovate around bringing fully recyclable solutions to market, we must also be good stewards and work tirelessly to educate consumers around recyclability. The recycling rate for plastics in the US is on the rise, but it is still low, compared to other materials. This is an area of opportunity for all of us.

What advice does Graham have for customers and brands?

Jayaseelan: Build strategic partnerships that help you honor your sustainability commitments. Find opportunities to educate consumers around recyclability. See sustainability as a fundamental and permanent part of your company’s mission. 

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