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‘Poly-feration’ of PE and PP innovations in packaging: ExxonMobil

ExxonMobil bag lamination fish
ExxonMobil (Houston) is featured in this second installment of an ongoing series regarding a growth spurt for polyethylene and polypropylene resins in packaging.

At NPE2018 in May it became quickly apparent that major polymer suppliers and other companies were mobilizing with developments and products related to polyethylene and polypropylene packaging. In this second interview with a leading company  in the polylefin market, PlasticsToday draws on the insights and expertise of Andy West, Polypropylene Marketing Manager, ExxonMobil (Houston).

How would you characterize the state of the industry for PE and PP polymers for packaging?

West: There is no doubt that the packaging market is very competitive. The global population is rising rapidly and there is a growing middle-class, especially in the developing world, which will only increase the pressure on limited resources. The need to do more with less has never been greater and that is why ExxonMobil’s ongoing technology innovation in PE and PP polymers is crucial in helping to achieve this.  New polymer technologies enable customers to create differentiated packaging solutions that meet evolving trends that include:

  • Thinner, lightweight, durable packaging solutions that use less material and energy, reduce waste of packaged goods and packaging material and offer opportunities for recycling.
  • Food and beverage packaging solutions that can extend shelf-life, reduce spoilage and protect food longer, compared to alternatives such as aluminum, glass and paper.

Over the years we have introduced several new polymer portfolios to meet changing needs.  Two very good examples of that are our newest polyethylene portfolio, Exceed XP performance polymers introduced in 2016, and the Achieve Advanced Polypropylene portfolio introduced this year.

Why does it seem that polyolefins in packaging are gaining momentum?

West: Polyolefins are gaining momentum because new products are offering significant benefits compared to more traditional packaging materials like polystyrene and PET, especially in meeting the evolving trends mentioned prior. In particular, these new product technologies, like Exceed XP and Achieve Advanced PP, are very good at helping customers accomplish their sustainability goals such as reducing material use, packaging and product waste, as well as creating packaging that can be recycled, while enhancing packaging performance.

We have picked up on the movement in polyolefins as replacements for PS and PET for containers and packaging that you mention also. Please elaborate on that trend.

West: Yes, there is a lot of interest in polyolefins replacing PS and PET because they provide customers with opportunities to create differentiated packaging solutions. For example, ExxonMobil and Thanh Phu Co. Ltd. (Hồ Chí Minh City, Vietnam), a leading Vietnamese manufacturer of flexible packaging, collaborated recently to push the boundaries for a 100% PE solution to address the market’s demand for a more recyclable solution for laminated packaging.

Recycling of laminated packaging has been a long-standing challenge for the packaging industry because of the mix of materials that make up its structure. The cost and effort required to separate the polyolefin layer from its laminates, like polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polyamide (PA), ethylene vinyl alcohol (EVOH) or oriented polypropylene (OPP), is a complex issue for packaging recycling companies.

The ability to replace conventional laminated packaging with packaging that can be recycled allows the industry to take a significant step towards developing solutions with more of the benefits that consumers are demanding.

The collaboration with Thanh Phu has resulted in a solution for a laminated flexible package that can be recycled in the same collection stream as PE by using our Exceed XP, Exceed and Enable performance polymers and proprietary film conversion technology from Thanh Phu.Flexible films with outstanding mechanical properties and superior optics, such as high gloss and transparency, with good thickness variation control are possible with these polymers, compared to conventional polyethylene films.

This collaboration has resulted in a true synergy between material science and conversion technology innovation. The cradle-to-grave cycle has been changed into a more responsible cradle-to-cradle concept. This provides opportunities for a full PE alternative to conventional laminated solutions without compromising performance, while maintaining an attractive cost-efficiency ratio.

What are the main challenges in polyolefin markets or for customers?

West: The main challenges facing customers are the drive to create new and innovative solutions that responds to all the market drivers of improved performance and lower cost, while meeting evolving sustainability challenges. Solutions need to deliver benefits across the value chain from raw material supplier to the final consumer and, in doing so, help create new markets for everyone.  This can only be achieved by taking an innovative approach, developing new polymer technologies and by working in close collaboration across the value chain that includes polymer suppliers, converters, packaging companies, brand owners and trade associations.  It is only then that we start to see truly innovative packaging solutions that meet today’s market drivers.

New products and buzz-worthy developments

Please point out a couple of ExxonMobil’s recent products in packaging and the applications for which they are most suitable.

West: At NPE we introduced Achieve Advanced PP to the North American market. Achieve Advanced PP represents our latest developments in proprietary catalyst, process and application technology and expands our PP product portfolio.  It was created to differentiate it from conventional PP.

Offering high melt strength, Achieve Advanced PP6282NE1 enables customers to economically produce thinner rigid packaging that is easier to thermoform. High stiffness provides downgauging opportunities of up to 15% while excellent processing can improve cycle times and offer higher output.   Achieve Advanced PP6282NE1 eliminates trade-offs associated with conventional polymers as stiffness and processing efficiency can now be increased together.  Packaging is microwaveable, dishwasher safe, reusable and widely recyclable.

In deep-draw applications, the high melt strength and unique molecular design helps to minimize sag, resulting in fewer part defects and sheet variations.  And, in thermoforming applications, the processing temperature window is almost doubled, for easier processing.

The high stiffness and increased filler loading contribute to solutions that do more with less. Typical applications include: Retail pre-filled food containers sold at supermarket stores, e.g., filled yogurt cups and baby food cups; and foodservice containers to be filled by the retailer, e.g. take-out food containers, fast food cups and hot drink lids.

So far, Achieve Advanced PP6282NE1 has been very well received in the market with customers reporting exceptional performance, processability and end-of-life handling such as reuse and recycling.

We have also expanded our new Exceed XP portfolio with the introduction globally of a new grade Exceed XP 8784 for high-performance coextrusion films. Offering extreme film toughness and sealing performance with improved processability, it provides more innovation opportunities for brand owners and film converters. This new grade provides:

  • Easier processing and higher output for converters, and higher packaging line speeds and a reduction in packaging materials for brand owners.
  • Processability combined with enhanced toughness, stiffness and hermeticity deliver value across the supply chain.
  • With a lower density, it delivers improved sealing performance while maintaining outstanding stiffness and dart impact at the extreme performance levels of the Exceed XP platform.
  • Sustainability benefits including: downgauging opportunities; less package failure and food waste; higher output; and reduced packaging material use.

This makes Exceed XP 8784 ideal for coextrusion films used for food packaging:

  • For sachets, the extreme toughness and hermeticity delivers superior compression resistance and high packaging speeds.
  • For laminated sacks, the hot-tack and stiffness/toughness/tear balance results in faster lamination speeds and high output. 
  • For frozen product packaging, the low temperature toughness and low seal initiation temperature improves bag-drop performance and reduces package failures.
  • For barrier applications, the formability and stiffness/toughness balance results in easier processing, improved package integrity and downgauging opportunities.

Which of the company’s products or applications caused the most buzz at NPE?

West: NPE proved the perfect platform to introduce our new Achieve Advanced PP portfolio to the North American market—there was a tremendous amount of buzz around this new set of performance products. NPE also provided a great opportunity to introduce the broad Exceed XP portfolio at a major trade show in North America for the first time, and our Exceed XP 8784 grade which is new this year. 

As well as new products, the success of Exceed XP has been such that in collaboration with our customers, we are discovering new applications for this extreme performance polyethylene polymer. Two were introduced at NPE: heavy-duty sacks and thermoforming applications.

Exceed XP provides a range of benefits that allow the fabrication of high-quality 3- and 5-layer heavy duty sack films. High package integrity, excellent sealing characteristics, enhanced machinability and outstanding operational efficiencies are all possible.When extreme performance is required, films based on Exceed XP can perform under the very toughest conditions by offering: 45% dart impact improvements; 16% lower creep; and 15% downgauging.

Exceed XP delivers extreme performance barrier films for thermoformed packaging. These high-integrity films protect and preserve food quality and enhance food safety, while delivering cost savings across the value chain. When extreme performance is required, thermoformed barrier packaging films based on Exceed XP deliver the following benefits:enhanced puncture resistance and dart impact; up to 30% PE downgauging opportunities; excellent optical properties including high gloss, clarity and reduced haze; and, the potential to reduce polyamide use by up to 15%.

Case studies and what’s next

Is there a recent and exemplary case study you can point to from these developments?

West: If you had a chance to stop by our booth during happy hour at NPE, you would have noticed that beverages were being served in a blue or gold cup. These are the result of collaboration between ExxonMobil and Fabri-Kal (Kalamazoo, MI) which used Achieve Advanced PP6282NE1 to produce a lighter, yet functional 9oz prototype beverage cup similar to those commonly used in the airline industry.  The blue cup was produced from a sheet 10% thinner than the incumbent material being used by Fabri-Kal and the gold one was 18% thinner. Visitors were impressed with the rigid feel of the cups despite how thin they were.  On a more technical note, it is worth pointing out that both cups outperformed the incumbent/original version from Fabri-Kal and the commercial cups used by two major airlines in a “crushing” test, i.e., inverted cup top load.  

We also produced and showcased a cup insert tray that contained more than 60% of a heavy mineral filler. Fabri-Kal reported they had no issues with sag or processability thanks to the high melt strength of Achieve Advanced PP6282NE1.

Achieve Advanced Polypropylene customers have reported the following:

A packaging producer replaced a competitive PP with Achieve Advanced PP6282NE1 in take-out containers for a global restaurant chain.  With the high stiffness of Achieve Advanced PP6282NE1, the producer offered to downgauge the container for cost savings, but the restaurant chain preferred the higher quality feel of the containers produced with Achieve Advanced PP6282NE1.  The increased stiffness also prevents potential warping when containers are stacked and full of food.  Moreover, the producer was able to increase their cycle times by more than 10% on its thermoforming equipment, as Achieve Advanced PP6282NE1 can process easier.  Value in use with Achieve Advanced PP6282NE1:  increased stiffness and improved productivity.

A producer of take-out containers is currently importing a competitive PP and replacing it with Achieve Advanced PP6282NE1 which will improve logistics (domestic supplier).  In addition, the value proposition of Achieve Advanced PP6282NE1 is three-fold:

1. Reduced variation in wall thickness to eliminate thin or weak spots that jeopardize the quality and strength of the container;

2. Higher stiffness for >15% downgauging.

3. Increased cycle time for ~10% improved productivity.

A converter looking to replace a competitive PP so they can use more filler for cost savings turned to Achieve Advanced PP6282NE1. Value in use with Achieve Advanced PP6282NE1:  Potential for ~15% materials cost saving with increased filler loading.

Examples of what customers have said about Exceed XP:

  • Tropic Plastics & Packaging Industry (Jacobs, South Africa): “We have witnessed this extreme performance first-hand.  It has allowed us to pass savings onto customers, give them better yields, but not lose food packaging integrity. We probably dropped one bag about 20 times, but still no tear in the bag, the seal remains intact and beautiful, no punctures.  There’s very positive feedback from the brand owners.  This is because we’ve taken their bag (food packaging) to the next level.”
  • Bemis Asia Pacific (Dongguan, China): “The extreme performance of Exceed XP opened our eyes to what is possible for packaging solutions. It’s having a great impact on us, a positive impact on us. Because this type of packaging solution reduces use of materials and waste.  Sales are growing in new market segments. I think this is all down to the capability of films made with Exceed XP.”
  • Thanh Phu Plastic Packaging: “Exceed XP gives us the possibility to look at things that we wouldn’t be able to reach at this point in time.  So with this resin, with raw material like this, it does give you the feeling that you can do more.”
  • Gundle Plastics Gorup (Durban, South Africa): “We looked at the impact strength, the tensile properties, and we could see that this is a product that will be beneficial to us.  There has been a big drive for us to reduce the thickness of the material. Exceed XP helps us to do that without losing any sort of technical integrity in the product – in fact it improves it.” 
  • Tex-Trude (Channelview, TX):  “I saw the test results out in the field and I did not believe those numbers until we got them in and tested the Exceed XP 6026 and 8656 – the dart impact numbers are off the charts. It’s a significant step-up from anything on the market.  We do a lot of research on a regular basis and can it achieve what we need it to achieve.  And that’s what we’ve found with Exceed XP.  It’s the best product we’ve trialed, the best product we’ve run and we’re going to continue to do so.”
  • Shanghai Yungkai Plastics (Shanghai, China): “Exceed XP has shown superior performance and cannot be replaced by other materials.”     
  • Shrinath Rotopack (Telangana, India): “Exceed XP has good, extreme mechanical properties which will be very helpful for our customers.  It’s a very economical and sustainable solution for them.”
  • EPA Plastic (Mexico):  “This resin makes an evolution – maybe a revolution – of the industry.  We’re proud that we produce the best film, because we use the best resin, too.”
  • Panverta (Pasuruan, Indonesia): “Because we find a better film quality, we can open a new market that we can develop together with our customer.  So, it’s a big chance for us.”

You can view a video of the customer testimonials here.

Any hint as to what new products are in the pipeline?

West: At ExxonMobil, innovation is part of who we are, since the very earliest days of the company.  Our ongoing program of technology innovation means there is always a pipeline of new polymer products, and even applications and processes. You can expect continued expansion of both the Achieve Advanced PP and Exceed XP performance polymers portfolio.

See also the first in the series,  ‘Poly-feration’ of PE and PP innovation in packaging: Milliken, published August 2018.

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