AMI’s Polyethylene Films 2020 Conference took place Feb. 4-6. Versa Pak’s Jeff Knapke, Scott Knapke and Keith Koverman attended and took away valuable insights to help them plan for 2020.
Listen to our discussion or read the full transcript below.
Polyethylene Films 2020 Conference
Right now we have Andrew Reynolds, director at AMI, joining us today. AMI is the leading provider of information market intelligence and events for the global plastics industry. We also have Jeff Knapke and Keith Koverman from Versa Pak here with us.
Today we are going to be talking about the latest AMI conference, which they all attended, which took place the first week of February in Coral Springs, Florida. So Andrew, if you want to kick us off, just if you had to give a snapshot of the two or three biggest industry trends that you discussed in your initial presentation at the conference, what would those look like?
We live in a world where a lot of what the brands are doing is driven by what they think young people want, but actually the evidence of research says young people don’t necessarily do that much recycling and more than anything they continue to demand a very high level of convenience from the products and the packages they use. And quite often that level of convenience will say, well we need quite a lot of packaging.
So that the product that you want to consume arrives at your table or into your shopping basket in the optimum conditions. So I think that’s what the challenges are and therefore, you know, people in the industry have to navigate what are quite choppy waters of determining how they meet the needs of retailers and consumers when retailers and consumers quite often don’t know what they want. I think the other thing about sustainability is an important thing for us to kind of get our heads around, is I think for the last 30 years, plastics have been the default material of choice for the company is innovating packaging and how products are presented.
I think that’s stopped. I think we’re now in a position – and it’s not that some other products have taken that default position of plastics is the first port you’d call in when you’re thinking of what you should use. I think what you now have is a much stronger competition where it’s a level playing field where brands will say, well, do we want something in plastic? Do we want paper? Do we want metal? Do we want glass? All of them come with our own prejudice. That becomes, I think, the challenge for companies in the industry of how they present what they have as solutions and new innovations in a way that appeals to brands and consumers.
I think, you know, we just have to work a lot, lot harder to make certain that the plastic products are understood by the potential consumers, both in the benefits they bring to the pack, but more and really the sustainability play. There’s still a lot of people who think plastics aren’t recyclable. You know, everyone accepts metals. Recyclable glass is recyclable. There’s a lot of groups who say, Oh, plastics aren’t recyclable. That’s just one of the examples I think in the sustainability discussion where we have to reconsider how we approach the market and the general arguments we make to the market.
Yeah, great points. And very interesting. Just a lot of it is consumer perception. And how do we change that? Jeff and Keith, we talked a little bit about sustainability at Versa Pak, but are there any changes as far as what you’re seeing from your distributors or questions people are asking along the lines of sustainability?
Sustainability is a push for sure in 2020. You know, we do offer a lot of recycled resins here at Versa Pak as well. Right now on the FDA side, we do a lot of the food product packaging, and recycled material is not allowed to be placed in FDA materials. Right now I know there’s some push for the PCR post-consumer resin. They’re, you know, trying to get the specs, to be allowed a certain percentage in that into the food market so that I know that’s becoming a big push. Versa Pak has always ran recycled materials. So we do, but now the push is that I want 25% in the final package.
Now I want 30% of, you know, recycled or a post-consumer resin, et cetera. So we have been looking into different manufacturers of the PCR resin. After the meeting we did, um, I’m going to go back to what Andrew said in regards to Rebecca Casey and a point she made; she made some very valid points. One was training the consumer. So what Keith and I and Scott talked about after, it’s like what the training side gets, everybody knows, you know, our recycled number is four and do we put that on to every one of our labels that we send out? You know, it has, the description has a size, you know, on there. So do we add a simple recycle symbol? So then we’re helping the consumer, you know, the end-user know that this product is recyclable and assembled. Number four. So we’ve been talking about that, throw that around.
Not only are customers wanting more plastic, like Andrew was talking about, they’re, they’re staying with, it’s not really growing like it has been. But the one thing that end-users have been doing is really trying to downgauge, and in regards to downgauging, that’s less of a footprint that they’re going to be putting on the environment. So the packaging people are definitely aware of the footprint aspect of it and that is one thing that we can help a customer downgauge in regards to different materials that we can run. Um, so that is another way that Versa Pak can definitely work with a customer in regards to the sustainability of the plastic market.
Okay. So that’s interesting what you just said. Can you explain what you mean by downgauging?
So there are materials that can be used as strengtheners. So instead of running a 100% LLDB bag, what we can do is we can put different copolymers or different kinds of materials in there that will give the end-user the same strength at a lower gauge, which will then in turn, lower the footprint, just less material that needs recycled.
Um, so switching gears a little bit, another piece that was discussed at the conference that I looked at a couple of presentations on this was technology. So Andrew, I don’t know if you want to give us kind of a recap. Are there any, um, anything exciting or new technologies that you, that were discussed at the conference that you were interested in?
I think for me, the main thing was a continuation of trends that we’ve seen for quite a while. But what interests me is just the increased sophistication across the board and a sophistication and a practical approach to the market that sees companies really trying to make certain that everything they do throughout that process has greater control, greater sophistication. It’s just an ongoing process. The ability to downgauge, the ability to use a variety of different materials in a structure so that you can make the structure with exactly the same performance but using 10 or 20% less material. Really that, that’s been ongoing. But the way in which the sophistication of measuring, of how much material you’re putting in making certain that it is exactly the right amount, it continues.
So I think for me, that’s the major trend that it’s not just, you know, it used be that people made a better material and they made better extrusion lines so that it was more sophisticated and they were greater controls and they were better additives. It’s really all of that being knitted together so that it’s not just one development of a better machine, but is the better machine combined with a better additive about a polymer. A better way of measuring the gauge on a machine or measuring exactly what’s in a formulation so that you’re not wasting resources. You’re putting in absolutely the right amount of each ingredient and you’re measuring that and you’re measuring that performance on an ongoing way with a sophistication that you never had in the past.
So it sounds like it’s just a lot of refining and making more efficient what we already have
Generally, I think it is. But some of those steps are really quite major, you know. They can lead to in the round quite sophisticated and strong improvements in what we’re using
Jeff or Keith, anything you heard about technology or anything along those lines that you think is on the horizon for Versa Pak?
On the horizon will definitely be, perhaps to expand our co-extrusion lines. So in the last year, we have put in three new five-layer lines. So we are starting to get into exactly what Andrew was talking about. Again, with these specific materials cutting down on waste, obviously more efficient, but then again helping out again with the sustainability in regards to what the customer is wanting and expecting. So expansion is definitely always on the horizon, and with our five layers, we’re testing the waters there and that will definitely be the route that we would go would be the co-extrusion and the multilayered lines.
What was the most surprising thing that you heard or learned at the conference?
I’ll go back to Rebecca Casey’s presentation. And one thing that stuck out in my mind is when she said, you know, like on the political side, the easiest thing to do is to ban bags. All of the problem, in a lot of people’s eyes, is the manufacturer. And she stated that we have to train the consumer once the consumer is trained on how to recycle. No, it’s recycled. Training the consumer, you know, training the politicians out there, to understand that our product is not going away anytime soon. But you know, there is, it’s definitely recycling that they need to be well aware of.
I think the one thing which struck me, and it’s one of those things that’s worth reminding ourselves of because we often have this debate about the role of the products we make and the way they fit into our societies. And there’s this kind of narrative that says, Oh, people who work in the plastics industry are evil. All they wanna do is produce these products which will make them money and pollute the environment.
And you know, one, I think that’s a totally false narrative because all of us live in communities, all of us care about the health of those communities. And I think in the dialogue, what really struck me was the very strong concerns that people within the industry have. And the drive, they have to make better products which make both our lives easier and better, but also deal with serious issues like the use of materials, the prevention of food waste and you know, we are, I think what I took from the conference was the sense that we very much understand those issues because they are part of what we do. But very much our industry wants to be part of the solution. It’s just that most of the time we feel quite often for very logical reasons that the kind of products we make actually make a very positive contribution to our world rather than a negative one. And again, I think it’s sometimes very easy to fall in these groups of oh, you know, the people over there are evil. The people over there are bad, and not realize there actually is kind of middle ground that we’re, all of us want a better world.
Was there anything you learned or heard at the conference that kind of reinforced what you’re already doing at Versa Pak? You heard it and you thought, okay, this is good. We’re already on the right track with this.
Yeah, I guess one of the things that I would definitely talk about there would be, came from Exxon Mobil when Tom Miller was talking about a supplier’s role in enforcing the importance of reprocessing material. So it was really interesting to me to hear about a raw material supplier, actually doing tests on what recycled material looked like going back into the products. So one thing that I took from that was a raw material supplier would want to sell you as much raw, virgin material as possible, but they’re actually working towards the post-consumer or reprocessed material. That was just really interesting to me to see that, that Exxon was moving in that direction because they know that that’s what the consumer wants and they know to stay in business, that’s what they need to be working on and help us as film manufacturers work on that as well and help educate us on the importance of that.
And what were one or maybe two big takeaways from the conference that you heard and you know, that you want to put them into action in the coming months?
Sustainability has been talked about for the last couple of years. After that conference, I probably will say that 2020 is a huge push for that. Like I said, we’ve already taken the steps. We talked about the labels. I mean, that’s just a small little thing that we think we can do to help our customers. The consumers understand, you know, that it is a recyclable. The Walmart, the big box stores – they already have the bins that you can put all the bags that you get in there to be recycled. So, I mean, the steps are going in the right direction, the training of the consumers, et cetera. We’re going to continue to look at the post-consumer. We do have a company on board that we’re already in testing right now with their product in the next couple months. You’ll see a pretty big push with Versa Pak on the marketing side of what we have to offer.
I think the only thing I would add at the end is just one of the things that someone said to me just before the conference actually, but it’s very relevant to all the discussion we’ve been having today, is the thing our industry needs to do is to start telling stories. You know, because I think the products, we still believe in the products we make and we still genuinely feel that they make a contribution to a better world. And I think they do. But I think what the historical mistake we’ve made is that we’ve tended to, faced by an emotional argument, come back with a scientific argument. And no, I think we have to start telling positive stories. We have to simplify some of the benefits which our products make.
I never cease to be amazed by just as simple a thing as saying to someone who sees a piece of packaging film, when you say to them, this is a five- or a seven-layer material made up of distinct layers, it’s incredibly thin. It’s incredibly light, and it does this amazing job and to tell stories around how the product developed and why it is in the way it is, rather than just saying, Oh, you don’t understand the discussion about sustainability because actually this is a better product because, and then we get into a great scientific discussion. I think we have to really engage with the emotions first, by telling stories, and then develop the more scientific rational side of that discussion.
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