Tucked away out of sight on hundreds of acres off Ga. Highway 81, the Covington campus of SKC Inc. is quietly blazing a path in the development of alternative energy technology and bio-degradable packaging.
SKC, a multi-national corporation, that until now primarily manufactured a variety of polyester film materials, has manufactured a polylactic acid film called Skywel. The film is corn-based and takes six to 10 weeks to decompose in a compost heap and two to four months to decompose in a landfill.
Since its release several months ago, demand for Skywel film has more than doubled. According to SKC Inc. President Ho Jo Kim, production has increased from 20,000 pounds a month to between 40,000 and 60,000 pounds a month. Kim said he expects the company to produce 1 million pounds of the film next year. Skywel film is currently used in the packaging of Frito-Lay barbecue flavored and chili cheese flavored corn chips.
In the last several months food prices have sharply increased around the world, partly as a result of farmers planting more corn to be used in the production of ethanol and less of other staple crops such as soybeans. Not wishing to contribute to food shortages, Jeff Hudspeth, chief technology officer of SKC Inc. said the company is already researching the next generation of bio-degradable film, this time based on plant waste.
"We think we have enough innovation and good people to make it economically viable," said Hudspeth of the company's plans for Skywel film.
Kim said it is SKC's goal to become the "go-to" source for bio-degradable film in the near future and to be the premier manufacturer in the emerging market of bio-polymers that would make the film 100 percent bio-degradable.
SKC is also researching the possibilities for film use in the solar energy market and has begun discussions with solar research companies.
"We'd like to be a part of the expanding and emerging solar technology industry," Hudspeth said.
Ensconced in a shiny blue glass building designed to model the shape of a film wheel on a sprawling campus that includes 200 acres of greenspace, SKC's Covington plant is largely automated. Technicians who operate the complex machines that stretch and pull the film to the desired thickness all wear special suits that keep out dust, which otherwise would damage the sensitive film.
SKC recently accomplished the impressive feat of reclaiming 98 percent of the natural resources used in its manufacturing processes.
"That's world class," Hudspeth said. "I don't' know anyone who has that rate."
By reducing the amount of new resin that is used to produce new film chips, SKC lowers the amount of fossil fuel required to produce the plastic in its film-making process.
The leftover 2 percent to 1.5 percent of film pellet waste is often crushed and resold to other companies who use it in the manufacturing of products like toy cars.
"We're not really putting anything back into the ground," Hudspeth said.
The company also reclaims 31 percent of the film it manufactures. Rather than thrown away, unused polyester film is collected and recycled to create new pellets Hudspeth said.
"We take all of that waste and create reclaim pellets," Hudspeth said. "We want to reduce the amount of new [film] chips."
To become more energy efficient, the company recently installed energy efficient lighting and motion sensors to turn off unnecessary lights on its campus in addition to redesigning its chill water HVAC air conditioning system to reduce the plant's electricity requirements.
An internal water recycling program has reduced the company's baseline water consumption by 77 percent in the past four years. SKC has also changed its energy fuel mix from oil to natural gas to reduce the company's carbon dioxide emissions.
While on the path towards energy efficiency and environmental sustainability Hudspeth said SKC has faced a number of potholes including high development costs and technical problems with the chemical formula for the Skywel film. Still Hudspeth said the benefits far outweigh the costs as far as the company is concerned.
"SKC's philosophy represents harmony," Hudspeth said. "[It's] very, very important to be prosperous but we need to do it in a harmonious way with the community and environment."