Welcome back to this month’s episode of Crazy About Packaging! Today, we're continuing our Process Highlight Series with an in-depth look at thermoforming. What is thermoformed packaging, when is it used, and what does the future of thermoforming look like?

Sneak Peek for Episode #15

Tune into our latest episode on Spotify or Apple, or watch on our website to hear us discuss all things thermoforming. Want a sneak peek? Here’s a preview of our discussion.

Introducing Our Guest Host: Conor Carlin

We are joined today by a guest host with years of experience in the industry, Conor Carlin. He has more than 20 years of international experience in plastics and packaging machinery, energy management, and sustainable business models. He is currently serving as the president of SPE for the 2024 term and advises startups in the plastics recycling space on the topic of sustainability. We are thrilled to have him join us to talk about thermoforming!

Can I Recycle That?

Natalie is back with the latest iteration of her game: "Can I Recycle That?", presenting our hosts with a challenge that many of us face regularly: can she recycle her plastic Starbucks coffee cup? She shows the cup is made of two thermoformed polypropylene clear plastic pieces with some writing on them. Can it be recycled?

Our hosts give us a reserved response. According to Conor, the answer depends on a range of factors — whether it is collected where you live, whether it is correctly sorted, and whether your recycling stream has the correct outlet to recycle #5 polypropylene.

As Mike puts it, "The answer to your question is unequivocally yes. Can it be recycled? Yes, it can be recycled. Can it be collected? Absolutely. Is it always collected? No. Is it sorted? Not all the time. Is the rate above 11% in terms of actual recyclability? No, it's not. And that's the shame of recycling. But, to answer the question, yes, it can be recycled and should be recycled more frequently than it is today."

Be sure to watch the podcast to hear the group’s deep-dive into what makes it difficult to effectively capture and recycle these polypropylene products.

What is Thermoformed Packaging?

So let’s get to the biggest part of our discussion: thermoforming.

What is thermoforming, and why does it matter? Conor explains the thermoforming process: "A rigid sheet is heated and formed using vacuum and pressure before being trimmed in some form or fashion into the final part. And then there's all sorts of mechanisms downstream for how to collect the parts, whether they're stacked, punched, or moved robotically."

Simply put, thermoforming involves using rollstock material which is heated into a rubbery state, at which point it can be formed into its intended shape. There is a wide range of applications from food packaging to heavy-duty material shaping, but throughout these applications the process remains the same.

What are the Applications of Thermoformed Packaging?

What is thermoformed packaging best suited for? There are a wide range of applications, but our hosts touch on a few: "It’s very versatile," says Conor. "In the medical sector in particular, there's been such a tremendous growth in medical device manufacturing that's leading to a sustained development of thermoformed medical packages, so it seems to make a very nice synergy between that medical sector and thermoformed packaging."

Mike adds that he is consistently stunned by the variety of applications for thermoforming. "I've been involved in medical device packaging, electronics packaging, and consumer products packaging. Some of the innovation in consumer products packaging is amazing. Functional packages that display products from cosmetics to batteries to household goods in a way that  provides consumer experience and really demonstrates brand integrity and brand innovation. Thermoforming is so adaptable. And I'm not even touching on food applications where there's high barrier, shelf-stable products, products that are protected in transportation in relatively difficult circumstances in trucks at temperature or at altitude. There's so much variety and adaptability in thermoforming."

Thermoforming Challenges

As an industry, we are constantly striving to find the most sustainable material option for our applications, and thermoforming is no different. With the emphasis on designing for recyclability and circularity, what challenges are facing the industry?

There has been a decades-long shift in the materials we are using for thermoformed applications as we learn more about the drawbacks of materials like PVC and styrene (and the benefits of others). Conor recalls "the distinct smell of vinyl chloride being thermoformed back in the day. PVC was very easy to heat seal and create very secure, highly transparent, highly visible packages."

While material solutions are making thermoformed containers more sustainable and safe, thermoformers are still facing the challenges of educating their teams on how best to use the different materials; PET and PP do not behave the same way, and the ways in which they can be used may vary. However, Conor does note that he expects to see manufacturers making an effort to learn and use a wide range of materials in the near future.

Solving Challenges with Collaboration

As with any processers going through changes and challenges, there is an opportunity for thermoformers to work together with other leaders in the industry to find a collaborative solution. Whether they take advantage of the opportunity could make the difference in the future of thermoform packaging solutions.

Conor sees a stark difference in the way collaboration is treated in the U.S. versus in Europe, as he explains that many European companies build consortiums focused on sharing information and collaboration. The U.S., in contrast, tends to value competition more than collaboration, making it more difficult (but not impossible!) to share our knowledge and resources. However, as Mike notes, the drive toward more sustainable solutions is pushing industry leaders to collaborate in ways they never have before.

The door to better material solutions can only be opened by collaboration and by helping one another. The future of thermoform packaging solutions relies on collaboration throughout the supply chain, and we look forward to seeing what increased collaboration can do for the industry.

Let’s Talk About Thermoforming

Interested in discussing thermoforming and the future of packaging? Share your thoughts with us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram, and don't forget to listen and subscribe to our podcast on Spotify and Apple, or our website.


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