Next time you unwrap a piece of candy or slice of cheese, you’re getting a taste of a unique industrial product made close to home.
The Innovia Films plant in Tecumseh is the only cellulose manufacturing plant remaining in the Americas. Not so long ago, its future, too, was threatened. But a collaborative state and local incentive effort, plus upgrades to adapt to demand for renewable and sustainable packaging alternatives, combined to keep the facility not only viable, but thriving.
Unique Product, Unique Process
Patricia Potts, global communications manager for Innovia, which is based in England, said the Tecumseh plant manufactures cellulose films from wood pulp. The process involves breaking down the pulp into a viscous liquid, which is then repeatedly filtered to maximize film quality. The end result are products sold under the brand names Cellophane and NatureFlex.
Historically, Potts said, cellulose films were the only transparent packaging available. The development of polymer films led many cellulose plants to close, leaving Tecumseh the lone plant standing on this continent. However, Potts said attributes such as twistability, cutability, anti-static and varying degrees of moisture permeability continue to give it a niche market. In addition to candy and cheese wrappings, the Cellophane brand is used for packaging food condiments and pharmaceuticals, microwavable products, static-free easy-tear adhesive tapes and battery separators.
Products for the Planet
Innovia’s other brand of cellulose films, NatureFlex, was developed with the environment in mind. “The NatureFlex range is at the forefront of developments in renewable, compostable and sustainable packaging and is the most fundamental advancement in cellulose films for 40 years,” Potts said.
Potts said NatureFlex is certified biodegradable and is suitable for both industrial and home composting. The films will break down in home compost bins, in water and sewage environments and if dropped as litter. The product is said to biodegrade in under six weeks.
Potts said the plant underwent upgrades and its workforce received additional skills training in order to add the NatureFlex line at the American facility.
Of course, those upgrades came only after a 2005 scramble by state and local leaders to convince Innovia that the Topeka area was where the company needed to stay. Innovia, which acquired UCB Films, was reviewing its costs and wanted to close one of its three plants—the other two facilities were in England. State and local entities compiled a roughly $2 million incentive package; and the company noted the value of having the lone cellulose manufacturer in North America.
“The centralized location makes it ideal for shipping throughout the U.S.,” Potts said.
In addition, the company says it could not put a price on the workforce, which remained committed throughout the discussions. The Tecumseh facility currently has 185 employees and operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
“I think the benefits of this location are the employees,” said Mike Basore, plant manager. “The employees are engaged and dedicated to improving the plant which makes Tecumseh a great place to work.” Today, the plant supplies not only Innovia’s customers in the Americas, but also Australia and Asia.
More Made in Topeka