Interview with Plastics Division Member PolyExpert

CIAC’s Plastics Division (PD) members are doing some impressive, innovative things to develop a circular economy for plastics in Canada. From product design to new processes and technologies, plastics are a truly sustainable choice and the plastics industry is constantly progressing to be as sustainable and environmentally conscious as possible. We sat down with Pierre Sarazin, Vice President of R&D with CIAC PD member PolyExpert to learn more about the company and its approach to sustainability.

For anyone unfamiliar with PolyExpert, can you give us an idea of what kinds of products you make and your focus markets?

PolyExpert is a company that produces films by using a blowing film process. The company was founded in 1979 by Mr. Gilles Plante who already had 15 years of experience in film blowing. This allowed the PolyExpert team to develop focused expertise on this technology, while at the same time understanding the needs of our customers.

We mainly produce polyethylene and compostable films. A large part of our business is dedicated to food packaging films for all kinds of applications. We are also working more and more on the design and production of high-tech custom-made films for very specific automated conversions. On top of that, we have a strong presence in industrial packaging, non-food consumer goods and e-commerce applications, as well as in agricultural mulch films. Our environmental commitment is also very present in our activities, as we aim at developing the most environmentally friendly films.

Where are your facilities located and how many employees do you have?

Our company has been located for 42 years in Laval, in the Montreal region of Québec. We have three distribution centers, one in Québec and two in the United States. We have over 115 employees.

After reviewing your website, it’s clear that PolyExpert holds sustainability as a top priority. What is PolyExpert’s vision and approach to sustainability?

Indeed, this is our top priority in all our activities! The process of sustainable development at PolyExpert started long before plastics made the headlines because of the visible waste spread in the environment. In the beginning, the company’s vision was to always develop for its customers the right and sufficient film for the application with sustainability as a priority criterion. This requires extensive knowledge of film conversion, packaging application and end-of-life management.

Five years ago, under the leadership of Lise Plante, our General Manager, a turning point was reached to be even more active on this front: we have established an integrated planning approach and action plan to improve the sustainable development of PolyExpert, with the help of the COESIO consulting group. The company’s efforts were acknowledged by Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Laval (CCIL) with the 2019 Sustainability Award.

This led to the creation of an R&D department focused on sustainability, today consisting of two engineers and three PhDs. This makes a big difference in product development and despite all the requests from our customers, we are implementing novel technologies and film structures that are currently seen as game changers in packaging eco-design.

Something difficult to see from outside the company is the extraordinary work done by the Operations team on the drastic transformation of our production tools. Located in Québec, a region known for its hydroelectricity, we already benefit from a renewable energy source that puts us ahead of the game. PolyExpert went even further regarding resource efficiency through several improvements: elimination of more than 90% of our water consumption, reduction of natural gas use by 80%, recycling on-site and reuse of our plastic scraps and installation of three full-size silos to store post-consumer resin. We have made the company as energy-efficient as possible. All of our actions have allowed us to obtain level 3 of the Ecoresponsible Certification, verified by Ecocert.

On a similar note, how important is developing a circular economy for plastics in Canada? What are the key steps or needs to successfully implement a circular economy?

Is Canada really concerned about implementing the circular economy for plastics? I would be happy to meet with our environmental minister to discuss this topic because he has a lot of field experience and I think he really wants to contribute to sustainable development.

In its 2017 report (“The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics & Catalysing action”), the Ellen MacArthur Foundation / World Economic Forum identified a concrete set of priority actions. Considering the share of the market by weight, the report concluded: “1. Without fundamental redesign and innovation, about 30% of plastic packaging will never be reused or recycled; 2. For at least 20% of plastic packaging, reuse provides an economically attractive opportunity; 3. With concerted efforts on design and after-use systems, recycling would be economically attractive for the remaining 50% of plastic packaging.”

The industry is already ahead of the curve in all three categories and especially for plastic packaging requiring innovation. But for the main portion, the 50%, much of the necessary actions are not under the control of the packaging industry and there are key steps to successfully implement a circular economy: harmonize & adopt best practices for collection and sorting, improve recycling processes, improve collection & sorting infrastructures, implement policy measures & regulations, etc. This is where countries need to get involved, by having accurate global knowledge and preparing a clear plan resulting in regulations that cannot be circumvented by suppliers from outside these countries. Let’s not forget that the principles of the circular economy can be applied to many other sectors where the materials to be recovered are even more valuable, economically and in carbon footprint.

Clearly, North America is lagging in this area, despite Canada’s stated willingness to make the necessary efforts. Canada initiated the Ocean Plastics Charter in 2018, which took the outline of the European pacts for circularity of materials used in packaging. As of May 2021, the federal government has added “plastic manufactured items” to the list of toxic substances, which includes both our Canadian dollar bills and the protective masks we wear every day during the pandemic. While there may be some merit to this (the goals are broadly relevant), I think it sends an inconsistent message to the public by targeting one material instead of taking a systemic approach to the waste problem (and not only plastic waste, which is just the “floating” part of the waste. There are some toxic substances, which are not on the Canadian list of toxic substances).

Perhaps we will see more concrete actions with the Canada Plastics Pact Roadmap to 2025, launched last October. The Pact has chosen targets similar to other national and global commitments but specifically analyzing Canadian dynamics with strategic priorities.

Often, our customers in flexible packaging contact us because they lack the tools; they make recyclable packaging, but what should they indicate on the packaging? The label #2, the #4? But these identification codes (RICs) were not designed for recycling. Let’s take for instance an all-polyethylene film with a fraction of barrier resin, with an Association of Plastics Recyclers (APR) approval made via a recognition letter; how do you indicate in Canada that it is recyclable? And can it effectively be considered recyclable in Canada? The How2Recycle label developed by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC), already well represented on the packaging of products sold in Canada, could also be a clear and easy option.

Primary food packaging has been particularly denigrated in recent years, yet it is extremely essential. Recirculating food packaging in the form of mechanically recycled resins for new usage in food contact is difficult because of food safety concerns. There are very few grades of resins approved or in the process of being approved by the FDA. In Europe, there is almost a consensus on the fact that only chemically recycled resins will be allowed for food use. For example, St. Johns Packaging, which is present in the UK, has put a bread bag on the UK market with a high level of chemically recycled resin. At the moment, these new recycled resins are not readily available in North America, and the volumes manufactured outside are all pre-bought for many years due to scarcity.

If we are to successfully implement the circular economy, it will be critical to take a systems approach. Any action on the packaging can have a significant impact on the entire value chain of the product and on the sustainability of the product itself. We can observe that the total reduction of Greenhouse Gas emissions of a system is sometimes accompanied by an increase in the contribution of the packaging to the carbon footprint. We must also ensure that reducing waste through circularity does not increase the overall carbon footprint of the packaging and its contents. It is not simple! Let’s remember the role of packaging: it’s only there because of the product. For example, the innovations in chemical recycling are incredible and we will have to make sure that the technologies scale up and that they will reduce the carbon footprint of packaging in addition to recovering waste. We put a lot of emphasis on the system-level approach in our presentations and LinkedIn posts.

Over the past couple of months PolyExpert has been taking part in panels and presentations. Can you give us an overview?

Starting in 2018, all of our presentations focused on the state of plastic packaging and initially explored the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s studies. As a result, we won the award for best presentation at the 2019 SPE FlexPackCon conference for “Will the Industry be Ready for 2025?”.

Secondly, we wanted to deconstruct misinformation about plastic packaging related to its usefulness in our societies. Plastic packaging does answer a need, is proven useful and should be approached using a systemic approach instead of banning certain products. More recently, due to independently published facts, we have focused on climate change and carbon footprint. For example, we use the UN reports as a reference and rely on articles from leading scientific journals. Clearly, the plastics used in packaging get a very high rating regarding resource efficiency and lowering GHG emissions. The problem with plastics is the scattered waste. Packaging is indicative of our over-consuming societies, but it is certainly not the cause of over-consumption. Overall, the use of plastic is beneficial and does have a significant place in addressing today’s serious global issues, such as climate change and the health crisis.

Plastics hold a lot of promise for circularity and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions; the denigration of plastics has contributed greatly to this. But let’s not forget everything else: all the manufactured products that have programmed obsolescence or are not eco-designed. Their contribution has a much greater impact than the packaging itself, and the principles of the circular economy should be applied to all these products. If we analyze food packaging more precisely, the most recent studies show that the carbon footprint of the product (production, distribution) is about 30 times higher than the carbon footprint of the packaging itself. As an example, remove packaging as France has decided for unprocessed fruits and vegetables, and food waste will increase even more unless there is a radical change in lifestyle and food distribution. GHG emissions from food waste are already far greater than those from all plastics in all applications.

Does PolyExpert have any innovative and/or sustainable products you’re like to highlight?

Currently, the industry is looking to improve recyclability by creating “monomaterial” flexible packaging. We have designed a series of monomaterial films, which have won a regional innovation award from the OIQ in 2021 (the Québec order of engineers). The innovation comes from the characteristics of the film – the possibility of replacing non-recyclable structures with a similar conversion into packaging and having better barrier properties. The barrier properties are still limited, but this range of film is already used in food packaging that was not recyclable until now.

As we approach the end of 2021, what does PolyExpert have in-store for 2022?

We are in the process of continuing to develop our range of monomaterial films. We should have a nice offering of eco-designed films in the coming months. It will be a pleasure to share the evolution of PolyExpert with you!