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PLA enters the realm of injection stretch-blow containers

A PLA injection stretch-blow bottle.
A process four years in development in the UK involving Floreon, the University of Sheffield and R&D/Leverage yields blow-molded containers for packaging sourced from polylactic acid (PLA), a bioplastic.

Developing a new material—particularly an environmentally optimized bioplastic for rigid container applications—was no easy feat for Floreon (East Yorkshire, United Kingdom). The company is an early-stage technical company that produces a high-performance specially formulated bioplastic compound that’s added to standard bioplastic, polylactic acid (PLA).

Floreon’s goal was to create an innovative material with a sustainable origin and a range of end-of-life options.  In fact it took the company four years of research and development work and a Knowledge Transfer Partnership with the University of Sheffield to come up with this unique, environmentally, fully compostable and high-performing bioplastic, explains Dr. Andrew Gill, Floreon’s Technical Director.

The company has produced about a half million pounds of the bioplastic to date, and has been actively securing global patents for the formulation with patents pending in the U.S. and Japan.

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Started with 15-L bottles

“We’re trying to get this bioplastic into the market for rigid packaging applications and further down the line for durable applications as well,” says Gill.  “We started with 15-liter water bottles primarily because these bottles couldn’t be recycled because of their size. We didn’t really know what customers were doing with them. We’ve been trying to commercialize the technology in various applications such as rigid packaging, trigger sprayers and water bottles.”

Key to the success of the development of this new additive to mix with the PLA bioplastic for rigid containers was the partnership with R&D/Leverage Europe (Nottinghamshire, UK) to help with material testing to determine optimum processing and which applications would be suitable for the new material. 

Floreon has worked on the development of the bioplastic material for its own purposes since 2011 in an effort to make large bottles for water coolers, Gill explains. “The material had the performance but we couldn’t make a large bottle with it. The problem originally was the thickness of the preform. The first 15-liter bottle failed because the preform was so thick and heavy that it required a lot of heat which essentially caused the material to crystallize using a two-stage process.”

R&D/Leverage and a Twist in the development

R&D/Leverage took up the challenge when it was approached by Floreon to help commercialize the breakthrough.

“We were interested in pursuing this enquiry to promote our commitment to Green issues,” says Alan Tolley, Managing Director. “And also because of our expertise in PET and Single-Stage Injection Stretch Blow molding applications, which we felt would be optimum for the Floreon material.

“Our first reaction was one of trepidation as we went into the unknown. With this in mind however, we chose a smaller cosmetic jar that in our opinion would be the easiest product [in order] to get good results.”

R&D/Leverage set the project in its Product Solution Laboratory (PSL) using one of the company’s six injection stretch blow-molding machines. Technical service engineers and engineers from Floreon used their expertise to process the material with excellent results. R&D/Leverage then upped the ante in the second trial, choosing a much more difficult bottle with challenging characteristics—R&D/Leverage’s proprietary Twist bottle.

“On this trial we ran the Floreon material using several different weights and preform wall thicknesses that we have for our Twist bottle,” explains Tolley.

Steve Gough, Technical Manager for R&D/Leverage, comments: “We found that the Floreon resin provided a large process window with great results in terms of optimized material distribution and sharp corner ratio. The capability transferred through with consistent good products produced from 3mm to 8mm thick preforms.”

The team of Floreon and R&D/Leverage proved a success.

“R&D/Leverage was an ideal partner to help us take our research and development, and turn it into reality,” says Floreon’s Gill. “They were able to dry the material to our specs, then select the appropriate machine and tooling. The initial test was performed with a simple application – cosmetic jars – and that trial was really successful.”

R&D/Leverage’s UK facility specializes in Single Stage PET blow molded bottles, and can bring its expertise to PLA along with PET, PP and Eastman’s Triton materials.  R&D/Leverage offers product evaluation, tool design and manufacture, tool qualification as well as proving product viability in the company’s Product Solution Laboratory.

R&D/Leverage USA is headquartered in Lee's Summit, MO.

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