Packaging Progress

When Newnan’s Clark Williams took his first job in the plastic packaging business more than three decades ago, he says he was fascinated even then by the pace of innovation in what has become a rapidly changing industry.

“I was fascinated by modified, controlled-atmosphere packaging, and I realized that’s what I want to do with the rest of my life,” he says. “Because it’s so dynamic. Every four years, there are new concepts for films [plastics] made available by the plastic chemists of the world. They can do things that are incredible.”

He’s still fascinated, but these days he’s doing a lot of thinking about how water is packaged and distributed and, he says, how a product he developed years ago might help get water to areas affected by hurricanes and other natural disasters.

After spending the early years of his career working for companies including W.R. Grace & Co. and Printpack Inc., Williams struck out on his own 22 years ago to found the company he runs today from his home office in Newnan, Plastex Industries.

A supplier of plastic packaging to companies as wide-ranging as fresh produce distributors ‘ the company developed packaging for lettuce that allowed for longer shelf-life and freshness via a more “breathable” plastic to liquid soap manufacturers, Plastex makes the kinds of containers in which many daily consumable products are sold, but which largely go unnoticed by consumers.

From the start, the 64-year-old Williams says that keeping the company small ‘ he is its sole proprietor and employee ‘ has been critical to his success. “I wanted to have a smaller, faster-moving company that could go after a lot of the things that the big guys couldn’t, or were very slow in being able to get their arms around,” he says, adding that the company generates “revenues between $5 million and $10 million.”

By contracting out to plastics packaging manufacturers in Cincinnati, Tampa, Fla., and nearby Senoia, Ga. he says, he is able to move nimbly in response to the marketplace. “We once had a part interest in a manufacturing facility, but we realized there are so many companies out there and there’s a lot of idle capacity,” he says. “We realized it was better not to own, so we don’t have to get into machinery upgrading every few years.”

From a world in which most consumable products have been sold in rigid plastic or cardboard containers, consumers are slowly warming to the idea of purchasing food and beverages in collapsible plastic containers. “You go to the grocery store now and you see there are so many things in stand-up pouches with zippers,” Williams says.

One area that is ripe for change, he says, is the packaging and distribution of water. The series of hurricanes that pummeled the Gulf Coast last year and left thousands stranded without food and water also left a deep impression on Williams.

What he also realized as he watched the televised images, was that with some planning and foresight ‘ and, he believes, the help of a product he developed more than a decade ago ‘ the aftermath of storms like Katrina, Rita and Wilma didn’t have to mean the thousands left homeless had no access to clean drinking water.

“There were stories about water and ice being shipped on trucks from one point to another point to another point, from one refrigerated warehouse to another,” he says. “Just millions of dollars were wasted.”

Instead, what he had in mind was the automatic packaging machine he developed more than a decade ago for the military, a device that can package water derived from literally any source ‘ including rivers, swamps and even ocean water ‘ in one-liter-sized plastic bags that can be distributed as fast as they can be filled.

Designed to be used in conjunction with what is known as a reverse osmosis water purification unit, a water-cleaning technology that’s been used by the military since World War II, the machine can be transported on tractor-trailer trucks, so it can be moved into and out of any location. When it’s running at full steam, the system can produce as much as 30,000 liter packages of potable (drinkable) water in 24 hours.

“It’s all self-contained,” Williams says. “There’s nothing that can keep it from functioning. You can add a bigger packaging machine and you can triple its production, and produce 20,000 pounds of ice an hour.”

The idea for the system got its start after the first Gulf War ended in 1991, when planners at the U.S. Army Forces Command at Fort McPherson were reviewing after-action reports in the wake of Operation Desert Storm. Desert warfare, they realized, presented a host of new challenges that the military hadn’t encountered since World War II.

One item on that list that became abundantly clear, Williams says, was that soldiers had a much greater need for water in the desert than in other environments.

“It was such a major, major problem because for everyone in the desert the heat was excessive,” he adds. “Everything about water became a very big issue. And they realized that if they were going to get back into desert warfare, then they were going to have to rethink and re-establish something as simple as how does a man get nine liters of water a day?”

During Desert Storm, water was delivered to soldiers largely in rigid containers such as bottles, a method that proved to be logistically difficult and expensive, as water had to be brought in by airplane, tanker ship and truck. “And trucks were forever turning over in those conditions, because you go around a curve and the water shifts,” Williams says.

Parked in warehouses around the country were the military’s reverse osmosis units the Army had used in World War II and the Vietnam War, but which hadn’t been used in decades because of the difficulty of transporting them. Desert warfare, Army planners realized, made those units necessary again.

In response, the Army called in a number of packaging machine manufacturers for a competition to demonstrate how they would solve the problem of getting water into easily transportable pouches for soldiers. The requirements, however, went way beyond just packaging water; each company had to show it could ensure the water could not be tampered with, and would be easily resealable.

Williams worked in concert with Houston-based General Packaging Equipment Company to develop its three-layered plastic pouch made of polyethylene and nylon and with a label that couldn’t be altered. “So [the troops] can just take one look and know it’s OK,” Williams explains.

After a two-hour demonstration, Plastex won the competition and a $5 million contract to become the Army’s water packaging system supplier. “They decided the way to use this in the field was the way we’d developed,” says General Packaging Equipment Company chief executive officer Bob Kelly. “It’s very rugged, it can be transported without being damaged, and it’s simple enough for troops to use in the field.”

The Army put the system to use throughout the decade, first in Hungary during Operation Joint Endeavor in March 1996, eventually producing more than a million pouches over the 10-month deployment. It proved popular with other countries’ militaries as well, prompting the Canadian army to order four of the machines, which it still uses today.

Since then, however, Plastex has run into a wall with the U.S. Army, Williams says. He speculates that the military’s drive toward a lighter, faster, more mobile force might be behind its recent lack of interest in the system.

“We can only suppose the reasons for not doing it, but it was probably a manpower thing,” he adds. “They want guys to have weapons in their hands, not [be] sitting in a tactical shelter making water.”

And though it meets the needs for security and transportability, Kelly says the package still isn’t familiar enough to American soldiers used to getting water from a bottle. “That’s kind of ingrained in our culture,” he says. “Whereas in other places in the world, people are far more accustomed to getting their water out of a bag. Colombia, for example has about 34 million people, and they consume about 120 million bags of water a month.”

The Army’s decision not to use the system is puzzling, Williams adds, because of its own calculations on the money it could save by forgoing bottled water. In the fall of 2002, as the military prepared for the war in Afghanistan, planners at Forces Command estimated that bottled water was 3.6 times more expensive than water distributed in bags.

By using the Plastex system ‘ which costs about $250,000 ‘ planners concluded they could save as much as $474,000 per month, enough to purchase, assemble and deploy two water packaging systems each month.

For now, however, Williams says he’s continuing to explore potential uses for the system. The devastating hurricanes that hit the states along the Gulf Coast last fall showed him that its potential for civilian use is just as great as for military use.

“Even with the military being an obvious user, I think that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” he says. “Imagine if we had a dozen sitting in Miami right now [in advance of Hurricane Wilma], for example ‘ we’d have a smaller problem.”

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