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Dow takes major steps to achieve sustainability in flexible packaging

Source:International Plastics News for Asia     Date:2023-03-06
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By Ban Hongfang

Under the current global trend of “green” development and environmental protection, a huge competitive field has quietly taken shape - sustainable flexible packaging. After years of development, sustainability is no longer just about policies and guidelines as it has become a buzzword that aims to benefit brand owners and converters


The downstream plastic flexible packaging market is also expanding day by day, along with various areas such as food, beverage, daily necessities and industrial and agricultural production. How do we make the packaging industry more sustainable through material innovation? Should we increase the proportion of recyclate or use virgin resins made from bio-based sources? The real situation is not that simple. In fact, innovating plastic packaging materials does not only concern a single company as it requires joint efforts of the entire packaging industry chain.

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Mr. Wu Chang, Technical Director of Packaging and Specialty Plastics, Dow Asia Pacific


In recent years, Dow has joined hands with brand owners, such as Liby and Procter & Gamble, by helping them launch the first fully recyclable stand-up paunches for laundry detergent capsules, “air capsules” for e-commerce packaging and other products in the market. What are the innovative logics behind these amazing products? Wu Chang, Technical Director of Packaging and Specialty Plastics at Dow Asia Pacific, mentioned in an exclusive interview with Ringier Trade Media Ltd that Dow focuses on four directions in flexible packaging innovation: plastic reduction, higher efficiency in flexible packaging production, recyclability and carbon footprint reduction.


From replacing rigid packaging to pursuing sustainability in flexible packaging 

Many people see flexible packing as a simple layer of plastic film. It’s in fact not the case. Mr. Wu, who has worked in the flexible packaging industry for more than 25 years, explained: “Flexible packaging is a very interesting industry. First of all, many flexible packaging products can directly make people’s lives better and more convenient. Second, the development of flexible packaging is closely related to our living standards. As the standard of living rises, consumers are more interested in functional and convenient flexible packaging, which will in turn promote the application of new technologies in the flexible packaging industry.”


Mr. Wu explained that a few years ago, people paid more attention on how to replace rigid packaging with flexible packaging. But in recent years, there has been a significant shift. More people believe that the future of flexible packaging lies in reducing, recycling, and reusing. In view of this, Dow has started to pay close attention to the flexible packaging market. It has also started relevant R&D and design improvement several years ago.

Obviously, plastic reduction is an important direction for innovation. Mr. Wu’s understanding of plastic reduction is “to meet the needs of customers with the minimum amount of plastic.” The masterpiece of Dow's post-MVLDPE era, INSITE™ Precision Packaging Resins, uses Dow's unique catalyst technology and makes molecular design that meets specific customer needs - such as enhanced toughness while providing the best thinning solution. TF-BOPE (biaxially oriented polyethylene) is also one of Dow's innovative products towards sustainable plastics. Biaxially oriented TF-BOPE provides better strength with a reduced thickness. When compounded with other products to make a wholesome packaging, TF-BOPE can play a vital role in plastic reduction.


Higher efficiency is also another important direction of the flexible packaging industry. During the production process for thin, single-material packaging, many manufacturers encounter a major obstacle: it is difficult to increase the speed of the packaging line due to unstable friction coefficient. Mr. Wu explains: “Dow has a variety of products suited in this regard. One of its latest products is ELITE™ 5408G COF stable heat-seal resin. With this resin, the friction coefficient can stay at a very stable level for a long time even with temperature changes and printing lamination, so as to meet the requirements of fast packaging.”


In recent years, recyclability is undoubtedly one of the mainstream development directions in flexible packaging. “It is a good idea to design flexible packaging as a recyclable product, using mono material. However, many processors often get trapped with barrier properties,” according to Mr. Wu. He also shared Dow’s latest developments in high barrier returnable packaging with a vivid case. Dow's ELITE™ AT 6900 Enhanced HDPE resin can be applied to all-plastic high-barrier composite hose solutions. In addition to good stiffness, the material can also provide good barrier and moisture-proof performance. This solution has been applied to many well-known toothpaste brands at home and abroad, and won recognition in the “Ringier Technology Innovation Awards 2022 for Plastics Industry.”


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Dow has worked with brand owners to develop packaging that meet sustainability challenge.


Also, Dow currently offers a series of PCR (post-consumer recyclate) products of different grades, with the proportion of recyclate varying from 40% to 70%. At present, many leading brands have commercialised production of collation shrink film, providing virgin-like protection and processing properties.


“Dow's biaxially oriented polyethylene TF-BOPE enables the all PE recyclable flexible packaging solution, which has been verified by TUV Rheinland, and can reduce carbon footprints by up to 35% compared with traditional non-recyclable composite flexible packaging.” Mr. Wu also discussed how material technology can help reduce carbon footprint: “Improving recyclability or the use of PCR are ways to go, while using resins from bio-based sources also provides another approach.”


In addition to flexible packaging products, Dow also has many products used in non-packaging fields, such as bio-based products used in the production of footwear. Dow’s bio-based resins have the same properties as petroleum-based ones, but are far more environmental-friendly.


Explore unique needs of the flexible packaging market in Asia

Compared with other flexible packaging markets in the world, the flexible packaging market in Asia is quite unique. Therefore, Dow also has its own strategy when it established its R&D centres. Dow has two main R&D centres in Asia Pacific, one in Shanghai and another in Singapore. Why choose these two places? It all starts with the local demand for flexible packaging.


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Dow's research and development efforts in Southeast Asia enables local customers to achieve true recycle.


People who have been to supermarkets in Southeast Asia will easily discover that flexible packaging (especially stand-up pouches) is more widely used in the region than in any other countries and regions in the world. Therefore, Dow's research and development in Southeast Asia focuses more on how to make innovative stand-up pouches.


“Dow Singapore R&D Centre has invested in the world’s most advanced production line for mono-material all-polyethylene stand-up pouch packaging, aiming to develop all-polyethylene stand-up pouch solutions with local customers and helping them achieve true recycle,” Mr. Wu said.


China's flexible packaging market and its demand is not the same as that of the Southeast Asian market. Mr. Wu asserts that many flexible packaging products in the Chinese market focus more on how to achieve higher efficiency. “The ELITETM5408G Stable Resin I mentioned earlier was born under such a background. It meets the requirements of Chinese customers for high productivity with long-term stability of the friction coefficient. In addition, Dow's TF-BOPE products are also designed and implemented by local Chinese teams, making significant progress in the field of pillow pouches, which has faster packaging speed.”


It is worth noting that China still has the fastest growing e-commerce in the world, and local packaging companies are also trying to reduce the impact of express packaging on the environment through innovation.


Mr. Wu mentioned another example. In order to ensure safe and sound delivery, express products are usually wrapped with multiple layers of packaging materials. Recently, a widely praised product in the industry is launched by Procter & Gamble via its new “Air Capsule” E-Com package, which has continued to innovate in material, structure, and size. The product replaces cartons, tapes, and foam used in the middle, reducing 40% packaging materials, and can be 100% recycled.


It is reported that Air Capsule, Dow’s relatively new solution e-commence, uses Dow's proprietary resin, which provides better oxygen barrier properties and resistance for the “Air Capsule” final product.


More participation from Asian customers

Dow also has a very special collaboration platform within the industry–Pack Studios. In the early days of its establishment, Dow had quite a few customers who were large foreign brands and processors. Over the years, Mr. Wu has witnessed the rapid growth of local brands and converters in the flexible packaging industry.


“In multiple cases, we have found that domestic brand owners and converters are more open-minded, highly efficient in communication and project advancement,” Mr. Wu said. “For example, the TF-BOPE we mentioned earlier, from research and development and application to final landing, benefits largely from the cooperation forged with many domestic brands and converters Their ideas, their passion and pursuit for cutting-edge technologies have all facilitated landing this product in the market.”

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 By cooperating with local processors, Dow's flexible packaging solutions are brought to the market faster. 

When cooperating with brand owners and processors in Southeast Asia, Mr. Wu also sees the same situation. He observes that the Asian market has its own characteristics. Brand owners and converters in this region have formed a unique thinking system. They tend to cooperate with those material manufacturers who have technologies on hand or are equipped with advanced concepts and technical reserves in terms of packaging solutions. 


For Mr. Wu, it is very gratifying to witness local companies gradually expand or even become world-renowned flexible packaging converters one after another in more than 20 years. “By cooperating with these local processors, we can bring Dow's flexible packaging solutions to market faster, and at the same time contribute to the technological advancement of the flexible packaging industry in Asia.”

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