SIC 3081

Establishments primarily engaged in manufacturing unsupported plastics film and sheet from purchased resins or from resins produced in the same plant are classified in this industry. Establishments primarily engaged in manufacturing plastics film and sheet for blister and bubble formed packaging are classified in SIC 3089: Plastics Products, Not Elsewhere Classified.

NAICS Code(s)

326113 (Unsupported Plastics Film and Sheet (except Packaging) Manufacturing)

Industry Snapshot

The value of shipments in the plastics film and sheet industry in 2000 was $14.1 billion. About 870 establishments operated in the industry, and 62 percent of these establishments had 20 or more employees. The average firm size as measured by the number of production workers per establishment was 34 percent larger than that for the manufacturing sector as a whole.

The plastics film and sheet industry employed approximately 55,400 workers in 2000, 41,425 of whom were production workers. This was roughly double the number employed in the late 1980s. The industry was highly capital-intensive, and its annual hours and hourly wages for production workers were slightly higher than those in the manufacturing sector at large.

Organization and Structure

The states ranking in the top 10 by value of shipments were, in order of descending value: Massachusetts, Texas, South Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, New Jersey, California, Illinois, Indiana, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. Together, these states accounted for 60 percent of total shipments and 61 percent of total employment for the industry. The average number of employees per establishment varied widely across these states. South Carolina had 10 times as many employees per plant (413) as California (40).

Background and Development

Although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, plastics films are generally defined as being less than 0.010 inches in thickness, whereas plastics sheet is thicker. The plastics film and sheet industry had its origins in the rapid growth of the organic chemical industry in the late nineteenth century. The first commercially successful plastics film was cellulose nitrate. Although this film had many desirable properties, its flammability limited the scope of its use. In his book Plastic Films , John Briston called regenerated cellulose, or cellophane, "the most important development in films." The commercialization of this film followed the development of continuous-process film production machinery for which the Swiss chemist J.E. Brandenburger received his first patents in 1911. Cellophane was initially used for the packaging of luxury and semi-luxury goods, but its use expanded rapidly thereafter.

Plastic Films: Technology and Packaging Applications , by Kenton Osborn and Wilmer Jenkins, summarized the growth of the industry as follows: "The commercialization of cellophane in the 1920s revolutionized the flexible packaging of consumer goods. For the first time, the buyer could see the contents of the package through a film that protected the packaged items from dirt, moisture, and atmospheric gases. Countless items previously packaged in heavy metal or fragile glass containers began to appear in this safe, convenient, lightweight film. As a result, the flexible packaging industry grew from a small, paper-based operation into the … giant it is today."

Cellophane remained the dominant film in the industry until the commercialization of polyethylene film in the 1950s. One of the key advantages of polyethylene film was its lower cost, which made it practical for large tonnage packaging applications. As of 1987, cellulose films made up only 7 percent of the industry's product share, compared to 29 percent for polyethylene films. The rapid growth of the pre-packaged food industry in the post-World War II period provided an ever-growing demand for polyethylene films. The use of polyethylene films expanded to the packaging of textiles and toys, as well as heavy sacks for industrial and agricultural uses.

The industry introduced polypropylene films in 1959. This film was stiffer than polyethylene film, and thus, readily lent itself to packaging with high-speed machinery. Polypropylene film made up 7 percent of the industry's product share in 1987, and was expected to grow more rapidly in use than polyethylene films.

The rapid market growth of plastics films was enabled in part by ever-lowering costs. This changed to some extent after the Oil Crisis of 1972, which slowed the growth of the industry. Nonetheless, plastics film continued to grow at the expense of cellophane and other traditional, flexible packaging materials. Considering that the production of aluminum foil was up to four times as energy-intensive as the production of plastics film, Osborn and Jenkins noted that "Rising energy costs will continue to favor flexible over rigid packaging, plastics films and paper over foil, and may cause a minor shift in the paper/plastics balance in the favor of paper. The latter effect can not be large, since paper has only a few of the many packaging-friendly attributes of plastics." The authors conclude that the diminishing supply of oil and gas will not significantly affect the production of plastics films for two reasons. First, of products produced with oil and gas, plastics have the highest value added in the production process. Second, plastics packaging used only one-half percent of all oil and gas consumed in the United States.

One of the relatively new important markets for plastics films was agricultural production. The agricultural industry used plastics films for greenhouses, row covers, irrigation channels, and mulches. Plastics mulches reduced weeds, fungi, and insects, and held in ground moisture. The use of plastics mulches resulted in yield increases of up to 250 percent in certain field tests.

Current Conditions

The value of shipments in the plastics film and sheet industry declined slightly in the late 1990s, from $13.68 billion in 1997 to $13.34 billion in 1998, before rebounding to $13.86 in 1999 and $14.11 billion in 2000. Employment in the industry followed a similar pattern in the late 1990s, declining in 1998 before growing once again in 1999 and 2000. By the end of 2000, the industry employed some 55,410 workers, of whom 41,425 were production workers earning an average hourly wage of $15.18.

One of the important challenges facing the plastics film and sheet industry was the need to develop more environmentally friendly products and processes. Two researchers at Cornell University published a study that addressed the biodegradability of plastics films. The researchers tested 12 films claimed by their manufacturers to be biodegradable and judged that only one of these films, produced by E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Company (DuPont), was truly biodegradable. This film was relatively expensive and may not be economically feasible for such applications as trash bags. Among other films claimed to be biodegradable, the best of them simply broke into small pieces. Demand for biodegradable and recycled plastics was expected to have a lasting impact on the industry.

Industry Leaders

Among the key players in the plastics film and sheet industry as of 1998 were Reynolds Metals Company in Richmond, Virginia; the Hunstman Corporation in Salt Lake City, Utah, and W R Grace and Company of Boca Raton, Florida. These companies are quite diversified and plastics film and sheeting make up only part of their overall sales and production. Other noteworthy players in the industry include Borden Chemicals and Plastics Limited in Geismar, Louisiana; and Viskase Companies, Inc. of Bedford Park, Illinois.

Borden Chemicals and Plastics Limited is a limited partnership that was formed in 1987 to acquire and operate chemical plants in Louisiana and Illinois that were previously owned by Borden, Inc. In addition to plastics film and sheet, the company produces other PVC polymer products; methanol and derivatives; and nitrogen products. Total company revenues in 1999 totaled $554.2 million, showing 3.5 percent growth from the previous year. The company employed approximately 800 workers in early 1999.

Viskase, formerly known as Envirodyne Industries, was founded in 1970, and had $409.2 million in sales and 3,050 employees in 1998. Producing shrink wrap and plastics film for food packaging, the firm was a subsidiary of the privately held Emerald Acquisition Corporation, also of Oak Brook. Viskase acquired its plastics production facilities in its 1986 purchases of Union Carbide Corporation's film packaging business and of Filmco International Limited.

Research and Technology

Plastics film and sheet was produced by feeding molten plastics through either a flat or tubular die. After being shaped, the film was cooled or "quenched," either by coming into contact with a cooled roller or by being immersed in water. Water quenching more uniformly cools films and was preferred, especially when film clarity was a consideration.

One of the most important outputs of the industry was laminated plastics films. Lamination enabled a film that combined the optimal characteristics of each of the component materials, whether that characteristic be imperviousness, stiffness, clarity, strength, or wrinkle-resistance. Laminates were produced either by adhesive bonding of separately produced films or by the newer process of coextrusion. In coextrusion, two or more films were simultaneously formed and heat-bonded either by a set of adjacent dies or by a manifold die. By creating laminated plastics films in one continuous process, coextrusion greatly reduced their cost. One of the disadvantages of coextruded films is that it was not possible to print on the protected inside surface since component layers are formed and bonded almost simultaneously. The quality of print was of great importance for the marketing of packaged food products. New developments in surface printing were underway to address this problem.

The industry developed a number of new products and processes in the 1990s to address the issue of environmental safety. A project undertaken by Dow Plastics and Advanced Environmental Recycling Technologies of Rogers, Arkansas, created a new process to remove dirt and other wastes from recycled polyethylene grocery sacks and stretch film. Grocery and merchandise bags constituted the bulk of recycled plastics film products. DuPont developed a new polyester film, Mylar OL, that enabled dependable seals for packaging with the use of adhesives, making the film more readily recyclable.

The Exxon Chemical Company started up a new film production line in 1993 that was capable of producing seven million pounds of plastics film a year, using up to 50 percent post-consumer plastics. Mobil Chemical developed a new low-density polyethylene called 'Super Strength' that enabled films to be produced that were 30 percent thinner, yet just as strong as conventional plastics films. Highly impervious silica-coated plastics films began to be commercialized in the United States in the 1990s after having been developed in Japan and in Europe. Aside from their desirable packaging properties, silica-coated films more readily lent themselves to recycling than laminates containing vinyl-based resins.

Airco Gases of Murray Hill, New Jersey, developed a new cooling technology known as cryogenic bubble cooling. This process eliminated a long-standing bottleneck in the production of plastics films and enabled output increases of up to 60 percent.

Further Reading

Briston, John H. Plastic Films. 2nd ed. Harlow, England: Longman Scientific and Technical, 1983.

Darnay, Arsen J., ed. Manufacturing USA. 6th ed. Detroit: The Gale Group, 1999.

Osborn, Kenton and Wilmer Jenkins. Plastic Films: Technology and Packaging Application. Lancaster, PA: Technomic Publishing Company, Inc., 1992.

United States Census Bureau. Manufacturing Industry Series: Unsupported Plastics Film and Sheet, 1999. Available from .

United States Census Bureau. "Statistics for Industries and Industry Groups: 2000." Annual Survey of Manufacturers. February 2002. Available from .

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