Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

Manufacturing Day 2014: This Isn’t Your Grandfather’s Factory

By Adam Cromack, SPI, Marketing and Communications Specialist

Logo-MFG-DAYDespite what some people may try to tell you, manufacturing in the United States isn’t dead. Today it represents more than 17.4 million American jobs, accounting for nearly 12 percent of our national gross domestic product (GDP). And as representatives of the third-largest manufacturing industry in the country, SPI knows how critical it is to get this story out in the open.

That’s why SPI member companies joined forces last year for Manufacturing Day, to tell the plastics industry’s story of how the right skills can make a difference. By opening their doors, these companies and thousands of others had a unique opportunity to share what they do with the communities where they operate. As a true grassroots initiative, everyone involved is committed to closing the gap in skilled labor, which represents the single largest challenge to manufacturing in practically every industry.

Public perception of manufacturing jobs is, to say the least, disturbing. Common myths smother the conversation, painting a picture of low-skill jobs that offer low pay and little personal reward. As SPI and its members know, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Today’s manufacturers are some of the most highly-trained, well-paid employees in the workforce, working on state-of-the-art equipment. This one fact alone represents the first hurdle that must be cleared in changing public perception. Participation in Manufacturing Day allows companies to interact directly with job seekers and students who are still forming opinions about potential careers, and starts the dialogue for a manufacturing job as a legitimate opportunity. No longer will young professionals see a factory as an antiquated dungeon filled with tired, worn-out workers unhappy with their jobs.

Manufacturing Day exists to directly confront these misconceptions, and to promote facts about the manufacturing industry that are often overlooked:

• Modern factories use an abundance of advanced technologies including automation, 3D printing, robots and screen technology.

• The average annual salary of manufacturing workers is more than $77,000.

• Manufacturing workers have the highest job security of all other jobs in the private sector.

• Ninety percent of manufacturing workers receive medical benefits from their employer.

On Oct. 3, hundreds of companies will once again open their doors to the public and show what they are really made of and, more importantly, what they are not made of. SPI is proud to continue its role as a supporting sponsor of Manufacturing Day, and is even more excited for its members to display the power of plastics manufacturing.

Learn more about Manufacturing Day and how you can get involved at www.mfgday.com.

Thursday, August 21st, 2014

The Green Fence and Why Every Recycler Needs to Pay Attention to China

China’s ravenous consumption of scrap plastics came to a not-quite-screeching, but still drastic halt near the end of 2012. At the time, however, you’d have been forgiven for dismissing the decline as a standard seasonal aberration.

For U.S. recyclers, a period of prosperity preceded China’s decision to begin enforcing laws restricting the importation of certain scrap plastic. “Everyone agrees that there was a time when there were no questions asked,” said Xavier A. Cronin, editor of a recycled plastics report at Petro-Chem Wire. “[They said] ‘as long as it’s scrap plastic, we’ll take it.’” This attitude made China a logical and lucrative market for recyclers looking to unload scrap plastic, and the industry did its best to make hay while the sun shined. Between 2010 and 2011 U.S. exports to China of “other” scrap plastic, a catch-all term that refers to a conglomerate of multiple resins in one box, polypropylene and other materials that fall into more than one category, regularly exceeded each of the four other types of plastics exports tracked by the U.S. Census Bureau, eventually hitting 526,898 tons in October 2012.

XCronin

Xavier Cronin

At that point, however, U.S. scrap plastic export volumes to China began a major dive that has yet to reverse itself, but in November 2012 it was easy to mistake the decline for the standard seasonal drop that recyclers had come to expect around the same time near the end of every year. “When we saw a drop off we thought ‘it’s November, of course there’s a drop off,’” said David Kaplan, formerly of Maine Plastics. “You don’t want to put anything in the water ahead of Chinese New Year,” he added, because millions of migrant Chinese workers go home for the New Year and many of China’s factories, recyclers included, go dark for 15 days, and what’s more is that many of the workers stay home, extending work delays for weeks. To account for this, U.S. exporters reduce their shipping volume ahead of the holiday. “The reason it didn’t gain attention at the end of 2012, ahead of the holiday season, export volumes always drop,” Kaplan said. “Nobody noticed it because they would’ve expected a decrease in exporting anyway.”

Declines in the months thereafter effectively killed any hopeful hypotheses that the November decline was just another seasonal reduction. That’s because October 2012’s reduction coincided with the institution of China’s “Green Fence,” a series of bureaucratic hurdles and newly-stringent regulations on what scrap plastic China would accept that has, and will continue, to complicate the business of exporting to China, a market that for many is too big to ignore, despite the regulations.

David Kaplan

David Kaplan

How the Green Fence came to be, however, offers an example of China’s political unpredictability that’s vital for every company in the recycling industry to understand. The Green Fence wasn’t written the night of Sept. 30 and instituted the following day. It was China’s decision to start enforcing  laws that it had previously chosen to ignore. “The green fence was the enforcement of laws that have been on the books for years,” Kaplan said. “The word enforcement is the key because [November 2012] was really when it started. It was the result    of a political move of the government to show that they were doing something about pollution issues in China. That is the general consensus; it’s not like the U.S. started shipping them anything different, they just enforced laws that had been on the books for years.”

“The data tells the story,” Cronin said. “The U.S. census shows that the scrap exports fell after the green fence enforcement bureaucracies went into effect. On the political side that’s a whole other conversation. Tomorrow they may decide to enforce a regulation from 1986.”

China’s sudden decision to start enforcing the laws that underpin the Green Fence suggests it’s anyone’s guess what China will choose to do or when they’ll choose to do it in the future. And what’s more is that China’s outsized influence on the recycling industry means that when it trains its regulatory eye on something, the whole world feels it. In many ways the Green Fence has both kept mixed scrap plastics out, and also fenced companies in from a revenue standpoint. Staying ahead of industry and regulatory trends, increasing the quality of exported material and exploring other alternative markets for scrap plastics to reduce China’s influence on your bottom line are all vital to growing business in today’s industry.

Join Cronin and Kaplan at their SPI Webinar on Sept. 4 at 2 p.m. EST to learn more about the Green Fence’s effect on the U.S. recycling industry and how your company can stay ahead of China’s unpredictable regulatory curve. Registration is free for SPI members.

Tuesday, August 19th, 2014

For Sorters’ Eyes Only: A Brief History of the RIC

Plastics recycling 25 years ago boiled down to two types of products: PET soda bottles and high-density (HDPE) milk jugs. But if the public, and the plastics industry, wanted to expand the plastics recycling effort, the first thing they needed was a good way to automatically identify the different plastic types.

“It was hoped that if a system was developed where the basic resin was marked on the container itself or on the articles that recyclers or sorters on the recycling line could actually identify those numbers and separate them into a variety of different bins,” said Thomas Pecorini, technology fellow at Eastman Chemical and chairman of ASTM Section D20.95.01 during a recent webinar hosted by the SPI Recycling Policy Subcommittee.

This desire gave birth to the modern resin identification code (RIC) system, created by SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association in 1988 to help make it easier for sorters and recyclers to separate different types of materials into one of six (eventually seven) different, broadly-defined resin groups. The goal then was the same as it is now; to reduce waste and ensure that the recyclable plastics entering the municipal waste stream could be collected and given a second life. The question has become, is the RIC still a vehicle for achieving that goal?

Resin ID Code Triangles

The RIC.

What began as a tool to help sorters and recyclers, however, eventually grew to become one of the hardest aspects of plastics recycling for consumers to understand. A poll conducted by the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) and Earth911 between May and July found that consumers are easily confused when it comes to recycling plastics.

“With more and more plastic being produced, it’s essential that plastic products that have reached end of life enter the recycling stream,” said Robin Wiener, president of ISRI. “As long as confusion reigns, consumers are apt to throw plastics away that should be recycled. This Earth911/ISRI Opinion Poll demonstrates a strong need for additional education, particularly by municipalities, on what can be recycled and how to do it.” Among the poll’s findings was the fact that 65 percent of respondents answered that they don’t understand what is and what is not permissible when recycling plastics. Additionally, 17 percent of those consumers were most confused by the meaning of the recycling numbers, or resin identification codes (RICs).

The irony in the poll’s findings is that the RIC, created to facilitate recycling, might be making consumers less likely to recycle, simply by confusing them, but it’s important to remember that the RIC was never designed for consumers in the first place. “The RICs were never really intended to suggest that all items with a resin ID code are collected for recycling,” Pecorini said. “Moreover they were never actually meant to be used by the general public and the original system was meant to be an optional system.”

But the deceptive simplicity of the original RIC made it an obvious, although ultimately misleading education tool for municipalities hoping to outsource their sorting procedures to consumers themselves. “Municipal recycling programs tried to bring their sortation-at-home programs and they began informing the consumers that these RICs exist and used it as a public education tool to say if you had six bins in your garage you could self-sort all the different materials,” Pecorini said. “But unfortunately that also fell out of favor because the consumers didn’t want to spend that much time on recycling.”

The RIC’s legacy to the general public is the erroneous suggestion that the presence of a RIC number, surrounded by a chasing arrow, means that the item is automatically recyclable. “This has kind of created a series of problems,” Pecorini said.

As such, in 2008 SPI began working with ASTM to take control over the RIC and convert it to a globally-accepted standard that conveys more information about the material, but the process is a balancing act. Making changes to the labeling system too suddenly could negatively affect moldmakers, and adding too much information to further particularize one of the existing RICs could lead to situations like China’s where an explosion of different categories has given them a system with 140 numbers, as opposed to the RIC’s meager seven.

However, most can agree that replacing the RIC with a more productive 21st century counterpart will require more specifics to make collected articles easier to sort into recyclable groups, and that the RIC should not be used as a public education tool. But many other issues remain under consideration, and ASTM’s work will continue as they strive to set a standard that considers the needs of moldmakers, equipment manufacturers and processors as well as those of consumers. “What we see in recycling right now is transitions from a lot of consumer education and relying on the consumers to sort the material, to more automated sorting,” Pecorini said. “I personally would hope that someday we get to the point where we can tell consumers to just put all your plastics in a bin, and that may very well happen down the pike…but right now that isn’t in place.” That is certainly a vision that is shared by SPI.

Monday, August 18th, 2014

North American Plastics Alliance Celebrates Three Years—and Welcomes ANIPAC

By William R. Carteaux, President and CEO, SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association; Carol Hochu, President and CEO, The Canadian Plastics Industry Association; and Steve Russell, Vice President, Plastics Division, The American Chemistry Council

Three years ago, the three leading plastics industry associations in the U.S. and Canada formally joined forces to create the North American Plastics Alliance (NAPA). Although we already were cooperating on many issues, we agreed that by memorializing a commitment to work together we could create efficiencies and be more effective as representatives of this large and diverse industry.

William R. Carteaux

William R. Carteaux, President and CEO, SPI

So what exactly has NAPA undertaken over these three years? Quite a bit.

Quick background… We set out in 2011 to coordinate our individual efforts on specific initiatives and programs in four areas:

  • Outreach – to promote better understanding of plastics’ benefits;
  • Advocacy – to encourage public policy that supports the growth of the plastics industry;
  • Energy recovery and recycling – to facilitate increased recycling and recovery of plastics’ stored energy content; and
  • Pellet containment – to extend wide-scale adoption of Operations Clean Sweep® throughout North America and beyond.

While observing our anniversary in July, we proudly added another member: ANIPAC, the leading  plastics association in Mexico. It was a gratifying  way to celebrate our Alliance, making it a truly North American entity. NAPA now encompasses the Plastics Division of the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the Canadian Plastics Industry Association (CPIA), SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association and Asociación Nacional de Industrias del Plástico, A.C. (ANIPAC).

At the start, we believed that leveraging our individual programs through enhanced cooperation among Alliance members would provide increased value to our associations and our member companies. And we were correct.

For example, on the outreach front, although each of our U.S. and Canadian associations has communications programs, we now routinely promote each other’s content through social media, greatly expanding the reach of our individual efforts.

carol hochu 2

Carol Hochu, President and CEO, CPIA

On the advocacy front, CPIA representatives joined with ACC and SPI in Washington, DC, for the plastics industry “Fly-in” in July, demonstrating the cross-border nature of the North American industry. Representatives from seven plastics associations, along with 111 member company participants, went to Capitol Hill to meet and discuss key issues with elected officials. In total, we met with 122 members of Congress, enhancing our industry’s profile in the Capitol and underscoring our contributions to jobs and sustainability.

The three U.S. and Canadian associations also are actively involved in energy recovery projects. In the City of Edmonton, Alberta, we’re working together to determine if adding more non-recycled plastics to a system that converts waste to gas improves efficiencies and results in better synthetic fuel products. (So far the answer appears to be yes.) The system is a full-scale “gasification” facility that is part of Edmonton’s efforts to divert 90 percent of its waste from landfills through recycling, composting, and waste-to-fuels technologies. We also are working together on plastics-to-oil projects to jumpstart technologies that convert the energy in non-recycled plastics into fuels.

Plastics recycling in the U.S. and Canada continues to show year-over-year growth, supported by myriad technical and communications programs to improve collection and scrap value sponsored by our associations. This fall, SPI will coordinate a meeting of North American plastics recycling association leaders to share best practices on plastics recycling and determine how to work more closely together in the future.

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Steve Russell, Vice President, Plastics Department, ACC

Efforts to improve and expand programs that help prevent resin pellets from entering waterways and the marine environment were particularly successful. In 2011 only the U.S. associations and their member companies were implementing Operation Clean Sweep. SPI created the Operation Clean Sweep initiative in 1992 to focus on proper containment of plastic pellets by resin producers, transporters, bulk terminal operators, and plastics processors.

Today, plastics associations in 12 additional countries, including Canada and Mexico, have launched Operation Clean Sweep. U.S. and Canadian associations have pledged to increase member company participation in Operation Clean Sweep this year by 30 percent and 20 percent, respectively. In addition, Plastics Europe is transitioning its member country associations  to the initiative. These efforts are part of the global plastics industry’s public commitment to tackle a global problem: plastic litter in the marine environment.

So what’s next?  There’s more to do in each of these areas, and through the alliance, we’re discovering new ways to be more efficient and more effective.  Our industry is large, diverse and growing every day.  And it’s clear that our needs are best served when we all work together.

The North American plastics industry is re-surging following a severe recession, with new opportunities brought on by cost-advantaged shale gas. NAPA pledges to help maximize that resurgence through cross-border cooperation and leveraged resources to enhance opportunities for the plastics industry and its products – in the U.S., Canada, and now Mexico.

Friday, August 15th, 2014

Turning the Tide on the Plastics Conversation

by Kim Holmes, SPI, Director, Recycling and Diversion

Many of the stories featured in the 2014springmagazine-coverspring 2014 issue of The SPI Magazine address the topic of plastics in the marine environment, which is undoubtedly an important issue for the industry. Marine debris stories are regularly in the news and are often the focus of recent scientific research. It is an issue that the industry must respond to swiftly and in a meaningful way.

Like marine debris issues, many of the conversations the plastics industry has with regulators and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are in response to a particular problem or challenge that has arisen. The industry will usually enter the conversation from a position of necessity, which often results in being put into a defensive position—not an easy place to be. Given the opportunity, most would like to be able to reverse the dynamic of these conversations, which would allow them the opportunity and ability to get out a more positive message. There are certainly opportunities for the plastics industry to begin the conversation. The question becomes “what would the direction of this conversation look like?”

Changing the dynamic of these conversations means the plastics industry has to make the first move, giving the public information out about the benefits of plastics, not just defending ourselves from the potential problems. Plastics present many advantages in our lives and in the environment. In fact, the more plastics are measured against other materials, the clearer their sustainability advantages become.

Light weight, less energy intensive manufacturing and production processes, minimal effluents in production, durability and expanded product life span and potential for recovery and recyclability are all areas in which plastics measure up favorably. In addition to these inherent advantages, the plastics industry is also adopting initiatives which aim to further reduce its environmental impact, protect workers and enhance the communities in which it does business. Based on what we see from our members, the industry has already expressed a true commitment to embracing the three core values of sustainability: people, planet and profit—commonly known as triple-bottom line.

As sustainability is becoming an increasingly important factor in the decision-making process of consumers and organizations throughout the supply chain, the plastics industry is finding itself in a position to shape a new conversation. Some large companies such as brand owners are starting to leverage the information in their corporate sustainability reports (CSRs) to demonstrate leadership, which in turn improves brand perception and strengthens brand loyalty.

As we enter the arena of environmental reporting, it is important to remember the distinction between promoting “green” efforts and simply “green washing.” Talking about being green becomes green washing when the environmental benefits are overstated or information that could change the overall environmental benefit of your product is intentionally omitted. This pitfall is one that many companies have been accused of over the years. The damage that can be done when a company is suspected of green washing can far outweigh the incremental positive gains from any beneficial claims. While everyone wants to showcase the benefits of a product, the information must also be accurate. This means that data collection has to be done in a methodical and transparent way, while using standard terms and definitions that are generally accepted by industry.

Last year, SPI conducted the first-ever sustainability benchmark survey of its members. In this first iteration, the survey focused mainly on environmental aspects of sustainability and served as a cursory view of our members’ thoughts about integrating sustainability practices into their business. This year, we have assembled a cross-council and cross-committee workgroup to develop a new sustainability benchmarking tool to measure all aspects of sustainability. The criteria of the tool are also more closely aligned with the corporate sustainable reporting framework offered by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). The tool will yield information on many of the same core areas that other large companies and industries use for measuring sustainability.

With the findings of the survey, SPI will be able to evaluate opportunities to further help our members integrate sustainable goals and practices into operations. Of equal importance, the tool will equip the industry with necessary data to highlight many of the positive activities happening in the plastics industry, allowing us to begin our own conversations about the benefits of the material and the industry. Participating companies can also use these findings to identify opportunity areas and set new goals around environmental and social stewardship. And for the many small- and medium-sized companies that may not have implemented sustainability benchmarking, participation in this survey will help organize the information that customers seek from suppliers.

While many large companies have already found value in publicly reporting their sustainability efforts, the overall perception of plastics as a material will benefit greatly if we as an industry can communicate our collective efforts. The participation of SPI members from across the entire supply chain is critical for this to be accomplished. Without it, the information being publicly reported will lack both integrity and accuracy.

Unfortunately, there is a reality where the negative conversations about plastics and the plastics industry will never fully die because they are rooted in emotion rather than science. However, we can bring a balance to the conversations with data-driven information about the benefits of our products and industry. This survey will be deployed in the first quarter of 2015 and we ask all members of the plastics supply chain to participate. Can we begin to turn the tide on the plastics conversation in 2014? Through our sustainability benchmarking efforts, the answer is a resounding yes. Together we can construct a message and take ownership of that conversation, but only with the help of everyone in the industry.