Exopack is a leader in the development, manufacture, and sourcing of variety of versatile flexible packaging solutions in paper and plastic formats for consumer and industrial end-use markets. David Soyka gets wrapped up in the details about how this company achieves sustainability both in the products it makes as well as its own processes for making them.
The old expression, “it’s in the bag,” meant something was guaranteed. Exopack LLC, can say it’s in the bag because it actually makes the bag, and has for quite some time. A hundred years ago, the company then known as Union Bag manufactured one of the latest inventions of the early 20th century – the paper shopping bag!
Today, Exopack builds on its heritage to develop, manufacture and source packaging and film solutions that utilize multi-walled bags, extruded flexible films, laminations, converted plastic bags, pouches and coated films. It also provides the graphics and coatings used on both forms of packaging. The company is the result of various acquisitions and mergers developed by investment equity firm Sun Capital that culminated in the formation of Exopack Holding Corp. in 2005. Jack Knott, who formerly headed one of the acquired companies, is the current Chairman and CEO of Exopack.
The packaging is supplied to consumer and industrial end-use markets, which perform the actually “filling” of the product in the packaging. These solutions involve considerably more than just acting as product containers; they are critical components to achieve both cost reduction and improve brand awareness. Moreover, Exopack is at the forefront in developing packaging solutions that are more sustainable, and thus make a significant contribution to improving and protecting the environment.
Exopack is one of the top suppliers to the food, pet food, medical, personal care, lawn and garden, building materials, agricultural and chemical industries, to name a few examples. It is recognized as one of the top five flexible packaging converters and extruders and has received 12 Flexible Packaging Association awards (FPA) for its many innovations.
Exopack is headquartered in Spartanburg, S.C., which also houses a graphics design and production center as well as a fullservice research and development facility and laboratory. The company employs over 3,000 throughout 18 ISO: 9000-2000 and/or AIB (American Institute of Baking) certified manufacturing facilities strategically located throughout the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. The company achieves more than $675 million in annual sales.
“While our customers are primarily in North America, many of our major accounts are multinationals, so, in that sense our products are used globally,” explains Vice President of Corporate Marketing and Business Development Lani Craddock. “However, in addition to our organic growth, we are always looking for appropriate opportunities in terms of joint ventures, alliances, mergers or acquisitions, and we would certainly consider expanding into international operations if there were a compelling strategic rationale. In fact, we’ve made a number of acquisitions over the past few years, a couple of which have recently resulted in our establishing a more significant presence in Canada as well as in the United Kingdom.”
What makes the Exopack package different from others is its solutions orientation. According to Craddock, “We’re not just another manufacturer, we are truly unique in our solutions orientation. It’s actually a new business model for our industry. If we don’t have a certain capability as part of the solution we design, we’re more than happy to source it for the customer, or partner with another company to make it happen. As a result, we provide the customer with the convenience of a single point-of-contact to design and deliver a packaging solution that achieves their goals. That’s a value add that customers today are looking for – eliminating the hassle and expense of dealing with multiple vendors. We take that off the customer’s plate so they can better focus on their core business, confident that the packaging solution we develop for them is the most economical and efficient, and consistent with their brand strategy.”
She adds, “Because many of our customers have global operations, we’ve developed, and are continuing to strengthen, global sourcing. That achieves two cost objectives. Sourcing materials close to customer locations usually means less expense for the particular packaging use, but also, having a number of worldwide sourcing options makes it easier for us as a company to manage worldwide raw material cost fluctuations. If prices are going up in one geographic market, another more stable market might be an alternative to draw upon to keep our costs down.”
SOLUTIONS THAT PERFORM
While Craddock notes that cost is always a customer concern, performance is an almost equal consideration. “A product has to perform in two ways. It has to hold up both in transport and on the shelf. But it also has to perform in terms of shelf appeal. This is particularly a concern in consumer goods, where you want the packaging to ‘pop’ – to stand out from what is around it to attract the consumer’s eye.”
To that end, Exopack has invested in 10-color flexographic printing technology that is state-of-the-art in North America. In addition to the color range, it achieves maximum visual impact with its wide-web printing coverage.
A number of additional factors enter into the performance equation. For plastics, resin selection is tailored to meet such conditions as strength, stiffness, and coefficient of friction. Custom engineered structures could include paper, polyethylene, nylon, polypropylene, polyester and metallized films. For example, Exopack’s AquaCrystal™ film offers high clarity and gloss to make a product really stand out and also has the seal strength and physical toughness to survive strenuous distribution cycles.
Sometimes, the little touches make the difference. For example, reverse printing on the inside protects the graphics from scuffing wear. As an alternative to traditional lamination, EB (electron beam) coatings can also bring out the color intensity of the graphics. This type of coating also reduces material costs and processing time because it can print and cure in one step. Special Exopack engineered co-extruded films and printing inks with built-in UV protection reduce the risk of material failure and faded print during outdoor storage.
“Another element in the performance mix relates to convenience,” Craddock points out. “Particularly on the consumer side, people want packaging that they can easily open and reseal. Our Hefty® Slide-Rite® Advanced Closure System is considered the next generation of resealable packaging that is easy to operate and fully protective of its contents. And for ‘peace-of-mind’ situations, Exopack’s patented Shur Seal™ tamper evident technology uses a unique adhesive system that ensures fiber tear evidence if seal tampering is attempted. These are all examples of innovations that we are always working on to provide our customers with the best options so that their products can be packaged and represented in the most appealing ways.”
Exopack paper products offer many of the same features as the plastics products. Consumer bags are available in all major styles – from small popcorn and coffee bags, to large dog food bags –and are available in a variety of proprietary coatings providing added protection against abrasion, moisture and grease while also adding eye-catching gloss and graphics. “The same feature/functionalities desired in flexible plastics are also desired in paper applications, both for consumer and industrial markets,” Craddock says. “Easy opening and resealing, convenient handling and graphical appeal. In addition, paper is a renewable resource that has become even more desirable for many of our customers.”
She points out, “Looking at consumer products, our Insta-Bowl™ turns into a self contained bowl when the bag is opened, which is a really nice convenience feature. In fact, the design won a Gold Award in Technical Innovation, and a Silver Award in Packaging excellence, from FPA in 2005.” For industrial packaging, Exopack uses two-ply construction of high-strength kraft paper, as opposed to the traditional three-ply, because it not only uses less material , it also makes the overall packaging stronger. By adding end patches, the eXpressPV™ bag holds up where it counts. In drop tests, the eXpressPV™ bag survived 6.5 times more drops than a standard 3-ply bag during conventional (ASTM) testing. On the convenience side, the two-ply bags fill up to 20 percent faster than conventional two-ply, so it has a direct effect on improving the customer’s filling efficiency. It’s become particularly popular in use for markets such as chemicals and building materials.
SUSTAINABLE PRODUCTS AND PROCESSES
According to Vice President of Corporate Strategic Development Paul Kearns, Exopack makes about 51 percent paper packaging and 49 percent plastic. “A few years ago, that ratio was 80 percent paper and 20 percent plastic,” Kearns points out. Regardless of material, Exopack emphasizes sustainability, both for its own internal process and the products themselves.
“Our commitment to sustainability is to prepare our business and our products for the needs of future,” Kearns emphasizes. “For our own business, we seek to minimize energy consumption, water consumption and polluting air emissions. Overall, we seek to reduce waste in every phase of our business operations. This is not only good from a business sense – less waste means less cost – but also in terms of reducing our carbon footprint and improving the environment. That’s good for everybody.”
In terms of the products themselves, Kearns emphasizes, “We use only safe materials and, wherever possible, use renewable or recyclable materials. We also design packaging to make the most efficient use of these materials, again to minimize waste and at the same time reduce cost. A key objective is designing a package that can be easily recycled or composted once the package contents have been consumed.
Exopack’s commitment to sustainability also carries through to new applications it develops. For example, Exopack Advanced Coatings was recently selected to supply a current collector for a battery developed for use in a completely electric car now under development by the Bollore Group, a diversified French company and Pininfarina, an Italian niche automaker. The objective is to produce and deliver 20,000 emissions-free totally electric powered vehicles to buyers in Europe, Japan and the United States by as soon as 2012.
The coatings Exopack will make for the vehicles’ lithium batteries provide a conduit for the electricity while protecting the foil from the battery chemistries. Exopack already provides current collectors for many other battery applications, including smart credit cards, military and space applications.
“This is just another example of our customer-driven focus for product development,” Craddock points out. “We at Exopack welcome any challenge that a customer presents us. Because Exopack has the expertise, the capabilities and the sources to develop what will work best that is the most durable, cost-efficient and sustainable solution.”
That about wraps things up quite nicely not only for Exopack’s customers, but their communities.