Just add sugar

October 28, 2011
| By Pete Daly |
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AT&T sells accessories for iPhones in packaging designed and manufactured by Display Pack of Grand Rapids, and now the company on Monroe Avenue NW has increased the “greenness” of its accessory packaging in time for the introduction of the new iPhone 4S.

AT&T is “going to be changing almost all of their packaging in their stores to be more environmentally friendly,” said Vic Hansen, president of Display Pack, a company started by his father, Roger Hansen, in 1967.

That will involve PET — polyethylene terephthalate, a type of plastic — made partly from ethanol derived from sugarcane instead of the usual all-petroleum PET. It also will include a new form of recycled paper ideal for printing on one side for use in clear PET packaging.

Display Pack saved AT&T a considerable amount of paper and plastic a few years ago, said Hansen, when it developed and patented a new package design that AT&T leaped upon. Marketed by Display Pack under the trademark Accessible Pack, is a clear PET “clamshell” with a hinge that allows consumers to open it in an AT&T store to make sure the product inside will be compatible with their iPhone. The package can then be snapped back together with no sign that it was ever opened.

Consumer products such as electronics are not generally packaged in Accessible Packs for large retail environments where shoplifting is an issue, according to Hansen. However, in the much smaller corporate-brand stores like AT&T or Sprint, the easily opened packaging is appreciated by both customers and staff.

“We’ve sold close to 30 million of these (Accessible Pack) units since we introduced them to the market,” Hansen said.

Hansen said AT&T has been using RPET, which stands for recycled PET. In reality, however, China buys so much used PET in America and ships it to Asia for re-use that most of the so-called recycled PET here is a mix of virgin PET and recycled PET — and up to 75 percent of so-called recycled PET really is new PET from petroleum.

According to Pacific Institute, a California environmental think tank, the production of plastic water bottles for consumption within the U.S. in 2006 required the equivalent of 17 million barrels of oil, not including the energy required for transportation of that bottled water.

Virgin PET made from petroleum is not very renewable, said Hansen, so AT&T has asked Display Pack to switch over to a new material called Terra PET, which he said was developed by a company called Klockner Pentaplast in Gordonsville, Va.

Terra PET, according to Hansen, is derived partly from petroleum and partly from sugarcane. “So we’re using less of a material that’s not very renewable and using much more of a renewable resource: sugarcane,” said Hansen.

“This is the first time I can recall when the customer — being AT&T — is actually paying more for the package because they want to have a greener package in the environment,” he said. Hansen said the cost for the sugarcane-based PET is about 50 percent higher than standard PET, “but it’s a good thing to do.”

Plant-based plastics aren’t totally new. A type of plastic called PLA — polylactic acid — derived from corn has been in use and lauded by environmentalists because it will break down in a landfill much more rapidly than petroleum-derived PET. However, PLA doesn’t hold up well in warm conditions, according to Hansen, so most of its use is for refrigerated foods.

Hansen said he believes AT&T is trying to tie in its more environmentally responsible packaging in connection with the launch of the iPhone 4S. Last week AT&T reported that it had activated 1 million new iPhone 4S devices in the first five days of its launch, which Cnet.com said made it “the most successful iPhone launch in the company’s history.”

The new AT&T accessories packaging also includes WCCN — white clay coated newspaper — labeling, which Hansen said is 100 percent recycled paper. It is recycled newsprint with a white coating on one side, on which is printed the product logo and information.

The adhesive that holds the label in the package is Display Pack’s environmentally correct invention, too, trademarked Ecohesive, a pressure-sensitive glue made from water-based latex unlike many adhesives that contain solvents — a big no-no in today’s green movement.

Ecohesive does not require heat to make the seal, thus saving energy, and there is no “dwell” time required for the glue to set while under pressure. As soon as a surface coated with Ecohesive touches another surface coated with it, they are sealed together, according to Hansen. He said that makes it ideal for either a high-speed, large-volume automated sealing line or a low-volume process done by hand “at your kitchen table.”

When a used Display Pack package is ready for disposal, he said, “You can grab the plastic and pull, and it comes completely away from the paper. So the paper can be recycled, and the plastic can be put in the plastic recycle stream. No cross contamination.”

“We’re really trying to watch the environment at Display Pack,” said Hansen.

The company tracks its raw material volume, and 97 percent of it goes out the door as packaging products or is returned to its own in-house recycling stream in the production process.

“Very little of what we put our hands on ever makes it to a landfill,” he said.

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