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Some bad news, some good news

So I’m talking to this crackerjack controls engineering guru about next year’s Packaging Automation Forum*, and by the end of our conversation it hits me: The U.S. manufacturing sector is cost-cutting itself into a heap of trouble. I know, in an economy where consumers who once engaged in aspirational spending have now shifted to desperational spending, being lean is what it’s all about these days.

But my engineering friend on the phone paints a picture that’s more bleak than lean.

“To meet cost-cutting goals for 2009, we cut out travel and training and attendance at events,” he says. “At the same time, we’re putting in more and more sophisticated equipment. If we don’t train people to run and maintain that equipment, if we don’t have our engineers out networking and learning at technical conferences, I don’t see how we can be sustainable. We may meet our financial goals for a given year, but eventually we’ll start sliding. The path we’re on worries me.” It worries me too. How far will the bean counters go?

More encouraging, on the other hand, are recent recycling developments that come from the good news side of the packaging scene. For example, there’s the announcement by organic produce leader Earthbound Farm that it aims to use only post-consumer recycled PET in its clamshells. Earthbound seems to understand that its move to PCR PET will help create a larger U.S. market for post-consumer recycled materials. The company’s manager of sustainability initiatives, Chad Smith, admits that sourcing PCR PET is still a bit of a challenge. Kudos to Earthbound for helping to stimulate demand for post-consumer recycled materials. Now let’s hope those on the supply side can keep up. (For more on sourcing PCR PET, listen to a podcast with Chad Smith at

Paralleling Earthbound’s announcement is news from Naked Juice that it aims to have its entire product line in 100% PCR PET bottles by the end of next year (see p. 10). This, too, is encouraging. I think we’ve neglected recycling in the recent past. We’ve allowed more exotic solutions—biopolymers, for example—to capture our imagination. But the recycling infrastructure is in place, and it works. Let’s expand it and build on it by making sure that recyclers know there will be a buyer for the materials they are reclaiming. That’s not to say that newer and sexier solutions should be abandoned. (I’m especially intrigued by Kureha’s Kuredux, a petroleum-based polyester that is said to have gas barrier properties far superior to PET yet biodegrades like cellulose.) But let’s not take our eye off the ball where recycling is concerned.

More recycling news came in June at the NPE show in Chicago. PTI Recycling Systems, a subsidiary of Plastic Technologies, announced it has been formed for the purpose of selling a compact, modular system that produces food-grade PCR PET. The small-footprint/low-energy system is suitable for recycling plants, brand owners, retailers, and municipalities.

“Our philosophy is that rPET supply is better suited to multiple, smaller, processing operations versus one or two large-capacity plants,” says Steve Hawksworth, who heads up the newly formed company. “We believe in a local ‘consume, collect, convert’ approach. By locating rPET production in closer proximity to resin users, you improve supply times and reduce the carbon footprint.”

I think all this renewed focus on recycling is a good thing. Now if only those bean counters would stop leaning U.S. manufacturing to death. 

* Yes, the Packaging Automation Forum celebrates its fifth anniversary on May 4 at Chicago O’Hare Intercontinental. Visit for more information. And if you can recommend a speaker for the event, please let me know.

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