Most cereal comes in boxes, tuna in cans and dried fruits in jars. At least they used to. The next time you’re shopping for groceries, take a closer look. You’ll notice another type of packaging becoming more prominent: flexible plastic pouches. These days, all sorts of products traditionally sold in cans, jars and boxes are now being sold in resealable plastic pouches.
Driving these changes on the store shelves are behind-the-scenes innovations happening in research labs. Take the scientists at ExxonMobil, who are tinkering with the molecular structure of polymers—the backbone of modern plastics—to craft polyethylene specifically formulated to make stronger and lighter plastic products.
“Over the past several decades, by developing new catalysts, we’ve been able to make polyethylenes that have more advanced molecular and compositional structures,” says Hans Vanbrackle, global manager of product research. “That has enabled us to make stronger, tougher and more processable plastics that the industry can turn into thinner and thinner films.”
Thinner, lighter and stronger plastics may not seem like a big deal, but in their end uses they improve sustainability. How so? Flexible pouches, in this case, are made with less material, require less energy to produce and need less fuel for shipping. The plastic packaging also goes a long way in preserving food because it’s durable in both hot and cold temperatures.
And while ExxonMobil is focused on product development to make plastics more sustainable, there’s another silver lining. In order to manufacture more polyethylene to go into those plastic pouches on your store shelves, the company’s manufacturing facilities are creating thousands of jobs in small towns like Mont Belvieu and Beaumont, Texas. In fact, more than 28,000 construction jobs and 1,200 permanent jobs are on the way as a part of expansion plans.
Gone are the days when grocery store aisles were stocked predominantly with cans, glass and aluminum. By transitioning to advanced plastics, manufacturers are helping society save precious energy and raw materials. And thanks to ongoing product development at R&D departments at places like ExxonMobil, it’s happening around the world.