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November 1, 2003

3 Min Read
Competition coming for dual-ovenable packs

There has been no slowdown in the demand for ready-to-eat meal packaging, also known as home-meal-replacement (HMR) packaging, as busy lifestyles leave little time for home-cooked meals in many households.

To date, the most widely available plastic dual-ovenable (conventional and microwave) containers used in HMR packaging are made of crystallized polyethylene terephthalate (C-PET), with the Voridian division of Eastman Chemical (Kingsport, TN) the supply leader.

Voridian officials did not respond to questions about market growth for C-PET. The firm has supplied C-PET since the 1980s and in 1988 launched its VersaTray brand as a means to draw attention to the material''s dual-ovenable qualities. The supplier licenses the VersaTray logo to four of its distributor and thermoformer customers, who in turn sublicense it to their retailer and packaging customers. Without revealing specifics, an Eastman spokesman says of C-PET dual-ovenable packaging that "it has achieved significant growth and market penetration." The packaging can withstand temperatures from well below freezing to 204C (400F).

Growth has been significant enough to draw the attention of some major-league competition in the form of film and sheet processor Klöckner Pentaplast (Montabaur, Germany). Not yet commercial but well into development is a PC/A-PET/PC coextruded sheet which will be marketed to compete against C-PET in thermoformed duel-ovenable packaging, according to Martin Berlekamp, product manager special films, food division.

He says the PC/A-PET/PC films are transparent, unlike opaque C-PET ones, and allows that, while more costly than C-PET, "Anybody can thermoform these [films]." Thermoforming of C-PET requires use of a nucleating agent to promote rapid crystallization. Higher crystallization levels provide the required high-temperature stability but also reduce impact strength, so processors often must choose coextruded sheet that is nip polished during extrusion to maximize heat and impact strength. Nip polishing limits sagging of the sheet during thermoforming. C-PET dual-ovenable trays are usually formed on female vacuum molds of aluminum, with a hot/cold mold setup for faster cycle times and reduced part distortion.

Berlekamp says the sheet being developed by Pentaplast will be easily formed on standard machines with no need for nip polishing. He also points to the paucity of C-PET suppliers—Eastman dominates the market—as a factor limiting the growth of C-PET dual-ovenable packaging, and expects the PC/A-PET/PC sheet to open the market to new players, thereby reducing prices.

Price of C-PET is an issue, says Peter Zelnick, CEO at thermoforming machine maker Zed Industries (Vandalia, OH), who says he has seen less C-PET processing the last few years as processors shy from the material''s cost. Eastman officials will not release pricing information.

Eastman also did not release details on all of its licensees but in the past has announced that, in the U.S., distributor Bunzl and thermoformers Gage Industries, Ivex, and Mullinix have had VersaTray licenses. Others may process the material for these trays without the license.

Competition for U.S. thermoformers is on the horizon as Europe''s top thermoformer of C-PET dual-ovenable plastic trays, Faerch Plast (Holstebro, Denmark), is strongly considering entering the U.S. market, according to Jørgen Møller, managing director.

"The market is huge and underserved," he explains. Faerch Plast likely will build its own plant or acquire one rather than enter as part of a joint venture, according to Møller. "We were at PackExpo in Chicago last year and had a very positive response. We''ll start by shipping packaging from Denmark but we''re very strongly considering locating a plant in the U.S."

Faerch Plast forms C-PET with a coextruded top layer of amorphous PET (A-PET), which helps improve sealing properties and gives packaging a high-gloss appearance. For foods that do not require heating to more than 200C, the processor also markets its own brand of HEAT/it trays made of chlorinated polypropylene with an ethylene vinyl alcohol (EVAL) surface. These trays, too, are dual ovenable and suitable for a temperature range of –18 to 190C. Møller surmises that the firm ranks number three globally in forming dual-ovenable plastic trays.

Matthew Defosse [email protected]

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