Exploring sustainable plastic innovation in Nova Scotia: A Q&A with Copol International

Allison Murray

Published November 02, 2020
in Case Studies

By Allison Murray

In our Atlantic Canadian Clean Economy Case Study Series, we’re talking to business leaders to learn more about the drivers, benefits and challenges that they’ve encountered while adopting sustainable innovation and operations, and sharing lessons in the transition towards a clean economy.

Copol International Ltd., based in North Sydney, Nova Scotia, manufactures cast polypropylene film for use in food packaging, as well as in other industries such as medical and automotive.

For the past three years, the company has been working with the Verschuren Centre for Sustainability in Energy and the Environment at Cape Breton University to develop a bio-based film made from the waste of marine shell products. They’ve also introduced lower-carbon manufacturing with the help of Efficiency Nova Scotia.

“If we can develop a one hundred percent bio-based film, that would be the ultimate. Then we can generate the whole film from just bio-based local materials and offer that to our customers,” says Denis Lanoë, VP Operations and GM at Copol.

Let’s dive into our interview with Denis:

How has growing demand for more sustainable products and the clean economy impacted your business and its competitiveness?

We manufacture plastic film and plastic has become a bad word over the last few years. Plastic is essentially doing what it’s supposed to be doing and that is last for a very long time, which is very unfortunate when it ends up in the environment. But it’s also very efficient and protects very well. The majority of the film we manufacture is used in food packaging and it’s actually very positive as far as food protection and being able to extend the shelf life of products. Plastic packaging reduces food waste and is much more efficient on a supply chain basis than other alternatives. So there’s a balance in there somewhere.

The cast polypropylene film we make has a very specific purpose and is hard to replace at this point, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen in the future. As a company, we are always looking at what can we do to make it better for the environment and what we can do to stay ahead of the curve.

We’re starting to see customers asking if our film is recyclable, and it is. But some customers have switched to a competitor because the recycling infrastructure is more established for their material. On the other hand, we’ve had customers that were using non-recyclable films switch to our film.

What prompted you to consider lower-carbon and sustainable innovation for your business?

For ourselves as a company, we want to do the right thing while knowing that we need to stay competitive within our industry.

So we started looking at what we can offer that’s different from the competition and is something that our customers want. That led us to develop a high-end, bio-based film generated from waste marine shell products.

We’ve also worked very closely with Efficiency Nova Scotia over the past three years to reduce our use of electricity. The more efficient we are, the less energy we waste, the more economically we make our film and we can be more competitive that way.

What benefits has your business gained so far?

We’ve developed some bio-polymer technology, which is great for our future. As far as benefits to the company right now, one has been exposure and networking. Companies are interested in talking to us or working with us knowing that we are developing this sort of product.

Being able to access government funding and programs has also been very helpful. We ended up with more funding to grow the project, but when we started, we didn’t know that would happen.

On the efficiency side, our energy use is down by about 10 percent. After raw material and labour, it’s our third biggest expense so this is a very significant savings for us.

What challenges have you encountered while developing or transitioning your products and operations?

The main challenge has been with funding and identifying the capital to support the project. You have to have resources and you need to know whose door to knock on to try to get some provincial or federal support.

It takes a while to end up with a commercial project, especially when you’re doing pure R&D so it’s a bit of a leap of faith.

What advice can you offer to fellow Atlantic Canadian companies interested in transitioning to more sustainable products and operations?

Do your homework. Find out where your particular industry is going and what would make sense with your company. Then start looking at where can you find resources and financing to help do the changes and go forward the way you want to. You also have to be willing to jump in, do the work and commit time and money.

What are some remaining policy obstacles that your industry faces in transitioning towards the clean economy?

For us, developing a proper recycling infrastructure would be huge. Being able to identify and actually recycle all the different types of films or plastics that are recyclable currently. We don’t have the infrastructure for it. It really comes down to cooperation between the three levels of government and industry to make that happen. That’s really missing. We’re not recycling anywhere near what we should be in Canada.