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Market News

 June 15, 2007
The Greening of the Plastic Industry

  Source: Modern Plastics

Author: Clare Goldsberry
Pioneering companies and university researchers have developed novel was to manage energy demand, lower manufacturing costs and improve reuse and recycling, and making plastics less of a burden on the world's ecosystems.

Saint-Gobain North America got a handle on its energy costs and was able to lower operational costs throughout the company. Plus, its program helps it better plan for energy costs at new facilities.

Less than a decade ago, energy use was a relatively stable factor when considering overhead. "Now it is extremely expensive, highly volatile, and has a tremendous impact on profitability," says John Marrone, vice president of purchasing for Saint-Gobain North America, with 200 production operations and $8 billion in sales.

In 2002 the company recognized its energy costs were out of hand, and embarked on an energy management mission for its North American facilities.

Saint-Gobain is a very diversified company -- totally manufacturing oriented, but across many different industries including plastics processing, ceramics, glass, and more. "The concern we had was that because we are so decentralized we did not have a full understanding of all activities relating to energy management," says Marrone.

The company contracted Summit Energy Corp. to help implement and maintain a centrally led energy management program. The program would manage energy demand to create operational efficiencies and include devising procurement solutions to intelligently buy energy.

Saint-Gobain presented Summit Energy with five objectives:

1) Create an energy database by collecting information on natural gas and electricity -- each of which accounts for about 50 percent of the company's energy use. "We wanted to know who we are, what we're doing with energy and how we're doing it, and what is happening with energy across North America," says Marrone.

2) Assist in managing procurement. That includes requests for proposal, selecting suppliers, help with negotiations, and finding synergies between facilities and energy providers. "We have a number of plants in Ohio, many of which use the same energy provider, but the plants were all paying different prices," Marrone explains. "The idea is to help us manage that procurement process more efficiently."

3) Perform market intelligence. "We're not in the energy management business; we're in the manufacturing business. We need them to help us manage this part of our operations so that we can focus on our core business without having to become energy experts," Marrone says. Some of Summit's tasks include timing issues, market movement, changes in processes, and infrastructure rules and regulations, particularly with electricity, which in some areas is deregulated and in other areas isn't. "If you're not ahead of the curve on these things, you'll lose and pay a premium for it," he adds.

4) Centralizing natural gas management. Less than 10 years ago, natural gas was controlled by fundamentals such as weather and supply/demand, and pricing correlated fairly well with heating oil prices. "Now, technical traders are driving the price of natural gas," resulting in huge price swings, Marrone says. "We're using financial hedging on natural gas to help us predict and control the volatility in this."

5) Help cut energy demand. The goal is to focus on usage behavior and consider energy use for new capital projects. Notes Marrone, "You only have so much influence over the cost of gas...The only way to get ahead of the curve is to have demand-side management, a very orchestrated program; a cultural program put in place -- and it's hugely cultural. Senior management must buy in with clearly defined targets for consumption. And it needs to be a goal and a directive for all operations people."

"The program is working and we're making good advances," Marrone says. Savings per year have run from 2 percent to 5 percent. "Saint-Gobain will continue to use third-party solutions to be our eyes and ears in the marketplace, but we'll always maintain control of our strategic and tactical position," he adds.

Recycling Reaps Food-Grade PET

Most PET collected for recycling ends up as fiber, strapping or other non-food applications. The three North Carolina State Univ. researchers -- retired chemical and biomolecular engineering professor George W. Roberts, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering Saad Khan, and doctoral student Joan Patterson -- have developed a new chemical reprocessing method for PET recyclate that offers as an endproduct food-contact-suitable PET. A National Science Foundation grant helps fund the research.

Key to any future commercial use is that the new process can be run continuously on a twin-screw extruder, as opposed to a batch process. In the extruder the high-molecular-weight PET melt reacts with ethylene glycol, reducing the polymer's molecular weight. Supercritical carbon dioxide helps lowers the viscosity of the polymer even more as it depolymerizes. The end product is in a state between monomer and polymer, called an oligomer; its low viscosity facilitates removal of impurities, and it then can be run through a conventional polyester polymerization process. The researchers believe the same technology could be used to depolymerize post-consumer polycarbonate and polyamide.

NCSU is working with DPoly Systems, a start-up formed last July to commercialize plastics recycling technology.

Klöckner, ALBA Pen Deal for PET Bottle Recycling

Film and sheet processor Klöckner Pentaplast (Montabaur, Germany) and trash collection firm Alba (Berlin, Germany) will jointly invest in an integrated PET bottle recycling pilot project in Eisenhüttenstadt, Germany. PET-CO GmbH will be managed by Klöckner Pentaplast Group and will use proprietary technology transferred from Klöckner Pentaplast/Americas to recycle post-consumer PET bottles into film for food packaging, thermoforming, and other applications. An Alba subsidiary is responsible for collecting and sorting the PET containers.

The plant, which is scheduled to start up this quarter, will produce 15,000 tonnes/yr of flake. Klöckner says the investment is a step toward sustainable business practices and a voluntary action to fulfill the 36 percent recycling target specified in German waste-packaging regulations. The cleaned material should meet both domestic and European safety and purity standards.

"Klöckner Pentaplast is proactively addressing the challenges of resource utilization, environmental impact, and sustainability," says Jo Kreuzburg, president and COO of Klöckner Pentaplast/Europe, Asia. "It is taking a lead in identifying and implementing solutions."