What Prompts Investment in PHA: Insights from a Value Chain Collaboration

November 8, 2022

SPC Advance panel explores keys to building a new ecosystem for innovative materials like PHA

On the final morning of SPC Advance 2022, a panel of partners from across the product development value chain gathered on-stage to highlight how they’ve been building a new ecosystem for PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoate) in flexible packaging. 

Brad Rodgers from Danimer Scientific brought the material manufacturer perspective, Jeff Hopp from Charter Next Generation and Chris Nothnagle from Toray Plastics shared their insights into extruding and conversion, and Hannah Smith from Printpack commented on how to bring supply chain partners together. As the end customer, Rob Cotton from PepsiCo brought the brand viewpoint. 

What has prompted these partners to turn to PHA? Its lower environmental impact and biodegradable properties at end-of-life create a unique value proposition as brands look for flexible packaging innovations. At the same time, the panel emphasized that working with a new material is not without its challenges, and has required trust and close collaboration to achieve success. PepsiCo’s Rob Cotton said they are now looking to share their overall learnings with the world, so that PHA can scale quickly as a solution as other brands and converters explore its use. 

Here are some of the key takeaways from the group’s collaboration:

  • Working with a new material like PHA means learning curves and new ways of communicating across the value chain 
  • The attributes of incumbent materials may be radically different than the performance specifications
  • Test early to ensure that a new multilaminate material will achieve end-of-life certification like industrial compostability 

A new material means learning curves and new ways of communicating

The challenges to commercially scaling PHA include a learning curve for extruders when it comes to orientation, stretch, and line speed; expenses from production line modification; and everything else that comes with “starting from square one”, as one panelist put it. 

With so many players involved, not everyone is using the same language, and open communication is key, since confusion will “slow you down”. There’s a “delicate dance” between the openness required to move quickly, and the desire to maintain intellectual property – all of this requires trust. 

The attributes of incumbent materials may not serve you 

One discovery from the process is that many attributes of today’s packages aren’t necessarily performance-based criteria. As the supply chain explores alternatives, this should lead partners to question, “What do I really need?” They may find that a package has been over-specified or has characteristics that are part of the incumbent material, but are not absolutely necessary for product protection or safety. 

With this fluidity of both needs and material properties, panelists commented on how they felt they were “inventing the product as it’s being made” – a challenging yet exciting prospect for those looking to innovate. 

Test early to achieve end-of-life certification 

One of PHA’s key advantages is its ability to be compostable, which creates a new end-of-life pathway for flexible packaging that is currently being landfilled. PepsiCo’s desire was to create a final packaging structure that was industrially-compostable, such as their new chip bag launched at Coachella (a finalist in the 2022 SPC Innovator Awards). 

This meant the partners had to test the material and final structures early – and often – with third-party certifiers like BPI (Biodegradable Products Institute) and CMA (Compost Manufacturing Alliance). This provided a key feedback loop, ensuring that the team would find out if a design was having trouble breaking down in composting conditions. 

Ultimately, long-term collaborations are a big commitment, but also a valuable opportunity – to buffer any individual partner against risk, to establish leaders and champions in the industry, and to educate others on how to work with the latest sustainable material.