Review PETnology Americas 2019: Wow, What An Audience!

8:20 min TWO:19

Wow!  What an audience!  Never, in 39 years, have I seen so much interest, so much enthusiasm, so much audience engagement at an industry conference.  Maybe it was the quality of the speakers. Maybe it was the subjects being discussed.  Maybe it was the less formal setting of the academic environment at Georgia Tech.

Maybe it was the intimate setting of the amphitheater with the speaker off the elevated stage and working among the delegates.  Maybe it is the hot economy and the enthusiasm and anticipation of re-kindled growth. Maybe it is a PET industry FINALLY fired up, sick and tired of being the scape-goat of all things plastic - ready to come from under their respective rocks, ready to fight back with facts, and to showcase all of the benefits of PET packaging. There definitely feels like a renewed willingness to take on the mis-information so prevalent in the industry. The industry is not just capable of telling a great, positive story, but willing and able to start setting the record straight about plastics in general and PET specifically!

Whatever brought these key decision makers, key industry influencers, industry captains together - whatever it was - it was about time!  For far too long PET has taken the brunt of criticism.  For far too long, the PET industry has known the benefits that far outweigh the disadvantages and environmental challenges.  And for far too long the collective industry has done nothing in its own defense. THIS PHASE OF PET’S MATURITY APPEARS TO BE OVER!  For the very reason that PET is such a great packaging material, it takes the brunt of the criticism. Because of its dominance, it is easy to find and to attack.  The turning point seemed to be at 16:55 on May 15, 2019, on the second floor of the Georgia Tech Global Learning Center as the second annual PETnology Americas conference came to an electrified close.  A plaque should be installed to commemorate the occasion.  

Stand-by Americas. Stand-by those who promote mis-information about singleuse plastics.  Fair warning industry associations who have squandered members’ dues with little to no results of improving PET’s image and as recycle rates founder.  Those companies who have benefited the most have stood by definitely years, as PET was lumped in with bisphenol-A, phthalates, un-recyclable plastics, bottles that float across the ocean (all against known science and logic). Standby academic researchers who grab headlines in search of governmental funding, to study molecules, worms, biodegradable disasters, bio-based resins - all which will NEVER do as much positive for the environment, and the preservation of food and beverage products as PET has easily, quietly and cost-effectively done for nearly 50 years!

Fair warning!  PET is here to fight back with truth and facts. PET is THE preferred food and beverage packaging material. PET is here to stay!  All we are looking for is a little respect and creditand to be left alone while we help save the planet - and to make it a better place for even those who hate out of ignorance.

The venue

If you were not in Atlanta on May 14 and 15 then you missed a lot.  It was reminiscent of the Summer Olympics held just a few meters away from the PETnology Americas venue, but 23 years prior.  There was an Olympic ending to PETnology Americas 2019 - thanks to 1 Blow.  Complete with eight Olympic medals and the literal gift of sight - thanks to plastics (in the form of two implanted plastic lenses in the presenters’ eyes). But since you might have missed it, allow me to provide you with the highlights.

The audience

To get familiar with the audience, an early presenter asked how many considered themselves sales professionals? About 5% raised their hands.  How many are operational? About another 10%.  How many nerds are in the audience?  It was overwhelming!  What was more surprisingly impressive is that the nerds were proud of it.  

Gone are the days when nerds stayed back in the laboratories scribbling notes in their hardcover lab notebooks.  They are out in the open; no longer introverted; no longer lacking in social skills. Now they are out making contacts, learning about new machinery, processes, technologies. Leading discussions.

‘Creative destruction’, as Joseph A. Schumpeter would call it. Intelligent and inquiring minds eager to ask the tough questions and drive for the facts.

Then take the new-found knowledge back to the front office, where they are now captains of industry as entrepreneurs and industry executives, having earned their way out of the lab and into the C-suite.  The few sales-types in the audience kept quiet in the back of the room, watched, and learned.

It was clear that PETnology Americas was focused on the more technical aspects of the PET packaging industry.  And if the presenters were not planning on showing the finer points, then they were forced to do so during the follow-up question period or during the networking breaks.

Interjection: Criticism, direction, leadership

If there was ever an industry that needed direction and leadership, it is PET plastic packaging industry.  And if there was ever a time when this industry needed direction and leadership, it is now.  It seems like we are experiencing ‘Death by a Thousand Cuts’, 114 years after the torture practice was abolished.

Everywhere you turn someone is critical of plastic in general, and plastic packaging specifically, and because PET is such a superior packaging material, it has become ubiquitous making it the most visible and easiest to criticize. But the industry presses on.  We have overcome many of the technical and processing challenges. Now we face a more difficult foe. One that is not easily defined or readily overcome. The criticism keeps changing. Correct one issue, and two more pop up.  Stamp out one myth, and more are quickly generated.  Many old issues are simply recycled for the next generation to address.  What is the problem that we must solve?  Is it litter, or is it landfill?  Is it exhausting nonrenewable resources, or it is minimizing greenhouse gases?  Is it linear, or is it circular?  Is it the ozone layer, or is it the ice shelf?  Is it eliminating plastics, or is it protecting food and beverage products?  Is it creating the perfect package, or is it providing affordable packaging?  Is biodegradability a goal, or shall we increase recycling? Who does not want it all?  But who is willing to pay the price?

Thomas Jefferson, when writing about explorers and pioneers said, “Of courage undaunted, possessing a firmness and perseverance of purpose which nothing (can) divert from its direction…”.  This sounds like the PET industry.  We need this undaunted resolve now for the rapidly approaching, and ever-changing sustainability challenges.  “Keep America Beautiful” it once was.  Beautiful in its simplicity.  Ellen MacArthur it is now; complex, multi-national, multi-cultural, multi-disciplined, with six segments, twelve paragraphs, and a video to explain the mission.  Who will be setting the direction tomorrow?

The topics

The 2019 PETnology Americas Conference provided that direction and leadership. Within the shadows of the big red buildings on North Avenue in mid-town Atlanta, came a man from a big blue building. Neil Enciso presented “A World Where Plastic Never Becomes Waste”.  

Not only is that a catchy title for a keynote speaker at a packaging conference, but it is the mantra of the PepsiCo as established in their corporate vision.  It set the tone and established targets for suppliers eager to help them achieve.  More than simply reduce and recycle, emphasis was placed on the new “R” - Reinvent.  Reinvent delivery methods. Reinvent package concepts.  Reinvent container design. Reinvent sources of raw materials for PET.  Much more than platitudes, PepsiCo is more serious than ever, and it shows.

Continuing with FMCG company philosophies that guide and direct the efforts of everyone else in the supply chain, Valeria Orozco represented Nestlé Waters.  Her theme leaned more towards inspiring and educating consumers and promoting collaboration across the industry.  Maybe the industry is beyond the jealously protected silos of market strength.  Maybe competitors must collaborate with the ‘enemy’ within the industry for the good of the entire industry and the environment.

David Feber, representing the leading consulting company, McKinsey & Company, unveiled industry shocks and packaging mega trends for the PET industry.  He highlighted changing consumer and retail trends, identified the five mega trends for profitability, and warned of pending legislation.  It was a perfect primer for any company in the packaging industry looking to update their business strategy.  To top it off, David provided a free download of their new Packaging 2030 white paper for the delegates.

Nissei ASB, Sipa, Sacmi, Husky, Bekum, 1 Blow, and Aoki Laboratories - to name but a few - presented and demonstrated that no matter how mature you think the PET industry is, you will be surprised by the level of continued improvement and innovation in primary container manufacturing equipment. New platforms, large and small, flexible, quick changeovers, shorter cycle times, reduced maintenance, ovalized containers, off-center necks, lower energy, secondary cooling, digitization, and much more.  All in the name of better PET containers at lower cost.

Interestingly, even the machinery companies cannot get away from the sustainability subjects. Husky presented an excellent overview of the various depolymerization methods.  It demonstrates just how far a machinery company will go to support their clients and the issues of today.  

By far, the presentations that drew the most interest and the most follow-up questions were about chemical-recycling and bio-recycling.  Starting with a more traditional, yet improved technology, is the glycolysis process being installed at Köksan in Turkey.  Hanna Begelman Sevsay presented the uniqueness of their implementation of the glycolysis process.  They flood the rPET with monoethylene glycol (MEG) resulting with BHET (the precursor to PTA) which is microfiltered and homogeneously blended into the melt of their existing Melt-to-Resin (MTR) PET process.  The output can be blends of rPET and virgin PET. 

Carbios’s tagline is “infinite biorecycling”. Martin Stephan walked the delegates through some bio-chemistry as he explained the enzymatic process of degrading PET with specific microorganisms back to the monomers where they can be polymerized back to PET resin. One benefit of this process is that the enzymes can depolymerize textiles or plastics and this flexibility also allows plastics to be sorted without sophisticated sortation.  The depolymerization is surprisingly fast with 90% reached in 10 hours, with 97% in 16 hours.  Carbios has the support of L’Oréal, Nestlé Waters, PepsiCo, and Suntory.  The downside is the length of time to get to a commercial scale plant, estimated to be 2023.   

Keeping with the sustainability theme, NGR’s Peter Schneider, debuted their Liquid State Polymerization technology within their proprietary recycling system.

To further extend the use of PET containers, Klöckner Pentaplast has developed the first ever shrink film with light blocking capabilities.  Called Eklipse™, it is now available to the market and provides complete UV protection so clear bottles can be used for light-sensitive contents.

And just when you thought that coloring a bottle had become a boring routine, here comes OmniFusion with the infusion of colors on the exterior surface which can be removed allowing for the under-lying clear PET to be recycled.  The process is also being studied for the incorporation of anti-microbials.

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Otto Appel put these technical discussions back into focus with the ultimate challenge and vision of plastics and the planet.  From climate, nature, water, waste, to ethics, technology, and responsibility. One day we will have 100% renewable and recyclable packaging materials, 100% renewable energy, and no waste in landfills, rivers, and oceans.  Prof. Appel is a pragmatic engineer, while also a visionary for our industry.

The exhibition

Fourteen exhibitors filled every available space and enjoyed the constant traffic in front of their tables as delegates roamed from the general session amphitheater to the all-day coffee stand and ice cream bar.  PET preforms, bottles, containers, closures, machine parts, testing equipment, measuring equipment and systems, materials, processing equipment large and small, maintenance technology, decorating techniques, logistic support, and technical design and support were all present and swamped with interest from early morning until security came to lock the doors.

At many conferences, the delegates thin out towards the end of the last day. But the last speaker on the agenda at PETnology Americas had the still-fullyengaged audience united, motivated, and even cheering at his closing message - a mantra for the Plastics industry - Be Proud, Be Proactive, Be Positive, Be Responsive, Be an Educator, Be an Ambassador for Plastics.

Perhaps the academic setting is the new normal for an industry conference. But I prefer to believe that it is more about the quality of the presentations, the speakers, and the delegates.  Perhaps it is the more urgent need for answers, results, and progress that we all see and feel in today’s business environment.  Gone are the good-ole-boy networks.  Hello technology.  Welcome scientific inquisitiveness. Be bright. Be brief. Be gone!  That was the pace and the tone of the second annual PETnology Americas conference.  A surefire recipe for a successful conference which will repeat in May of 2020 with all new subjects, all new presenters, all new challenges, all new direction and leadership from FMCGs, and all new disruptions from the 2020 nerds.

PETnology Americas 2020

12-13 May 2020

Atlanta, GA, USA

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