Monday, April 4th, 2016

Bioplastics 101

Bioplastics are found in our daily lives, and people don’t know it. They drink from biobased plastic bottles or drive in cars with seats and tubing that come from biobased sources. They go to parties and eat with compostable plates and forks. At the hospital, bioplastics are found in sutures and implants.

biobased benefitsThe histories of plastics and bioplastics have always been closely linked. The first man-made plastic – celluloid – was created to replace ivory in billiard balls, and went on to imitate ivory in many other applications, including combs and piano keys. Poly(lactic acid), one of the most common biodegradable bioplastics, was commercialized in the 1950s and used for medical applications until a breakthrough in manufacturing enabled it to become a large-scale commodity plastic in the mid-1990s.

Biobased and Biodegradable

Bioplastics are plastics that are 1) biobased, meaning they come from a renewable resource, 2) biodegradable, meaning they break down naturally, or 3) are both biobased and biodegradable. There are durable bioplastics made entirely from sugar cane, and some biodegradable plastics that are derived from nonrenewable resources.

Biobased means that a percentage of the carbon found in the plastic comes from a renewable resource. Resources used to make biobased bioplastics are called feedstocks, and include corn, sugar cane, castor beans, saw dust and even algae. Some have raised concerns that making plastics from plants means that this process reduces the amount of food available, but less than .01% of the land used for growing is used to make bioplastics. That’s like saying for every 12.5 ears of corn grown, one kernel is used to produce bioplastics.

golden wheat field and sunny dayBiodegradable means that bioplastics break down completely through a natural process within a short period of time into elements found in nature. Microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi, and larger creatures like earthworms, eat the plastics for food, breaking them down for energy and converting them into carbon dioxide, methane and water.

Biodegradation, however, can vary based on a lot of factors and is therefore not as helpful a term for consumers. It’s more important for them to know how to properly dispose of a biodegradable object. That is why we use terms such as “home compostable” or “industrially compostable” to help give consumers the information they need to properly dispose of certain bioplastics. Home and industrial composting differ because home systems use simple methods, such as a compost pile, with much greater variability and lower temperatures than industrial composting.

Bioplastics and Degradable Additives

Oftentimes there is confusion between bioplastics and plastics to which a degradable additive has been added. Both SPI and others have concerns about products that claim to be able to convert traditional durable plastics into biodegradable ones, and consumers should be wary of these products as well.

Bioplastics and Recycling

Bioplastics can be recyclable—even those that are biodegradable! Composting is a complement to recycling, and provides an alternate end-of-life option for plastics that cannot be recycled due to food waste contamination.

Monday, April 4th, 2016

DOL Releases Final Persuader Rule

On March 23, the Department of Labor (DOL) released the final “persuader rule” which changes longstanding requirements on how employers can seek advice regarding union organizing activities and when employers and others have to disclose information to DOL. The previous rule required disclosure only from employers and others who had direct contact with employees regarding union organizing campaigns.

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The new rule will now require persuader disclosure by third-party lawyers and labor consultants educating employers on union organizing rights and collective bargaining, even if they have no direct contact with employees. Management attorneys argue that the new rule will threaten client confidentiality and hamper the ability of employers to seek advice to respond to unionization activities. The Obama Administration says that the rule will provide clarity to employees and the public without limiting what employers and consultants can say, and while informing workers of who is saying what. Exempt from disclosure is the advice from consultants and lawyers making “recommendations regarding a decision or course of conduct.” Trade associations are only exempted if they do not conduct seminars or provide materials to member companies.

The rule takes effect on April 25, 2016, and is applicable for arrangements and agreements made after July 1. The Coalition for a Democratic Workplace (CDW), of which SPI is a member, is reviewing the final rule and will challenge it in court if warranted. 

Monday, March 21st, 2016

Five Regulatory Issues to Watch in 2016

This year is proving to be packed with regulatory activity at the federal level for two big reasons: first, with Congress focused on elections, federal agencies can take actions with less scrutiny than they might’ve faced in any other year, and second, this is President Obama’s last opportunity to make lasting policy changes. Stateside, California will remain active from a regulatory standpoint this year as well, because…well…it’s California.

While SPI addresses countless issues stemming from the federal agencies’ semi-annual agendas, federal courts and the states, here is a sampling of issues that impact the plastics industry.

Foreign Supplier Verification Programs (FSVP)

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued its final FSVP rule in November 2015 under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). FSVP governs food that is imported to the United States and ensures that those importing food are doing so in a manner that is as safe as possible for the American public. SPI worked with FDA to ensure that the rule would include an explicit exemption for food contact substances, but unfortunately the final rule did not provide any such exemption. By default, this means the rule encompasses food packaging. SPI members could be subject to onerous and unnecessary requirements to conduct food safety hazard assessments and audits of their foreign suppliers if they manufacture food contact substances. SPI is currently working with FDA on the issue and hopes to see some clarifying action by the agency in 2016.

Improve Tracking of Workplace Injuries and Illnesses

The pending Improve Tracking of Workplace Injuries and Illnesses rule is one of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) highest priorities. A final rule is under review at the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB), Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). SPI submitted comments on the November 2013 proposal, which would require the electronic transmission (annual or quarterly, depending on the number of employees) of information that is currently recorded, but not reported, to OSHA or its designee. Significant concerns include maintaining employee confidentiality, particularly with the posting of information on a public website, as well as employer and agency resource burdens.

Combustible Dust Rule

OSHA does not have a comprehensive standard to address combustible dust, though it is now in the definition of “hazardous chemical” in the Hazard Communication Standard (HCS). Combustible dust incidents have resulted in fires and explosions, and rulemaking activity was first published in the Unified Agenda in spring 2009. The next step is seeking small business input, required under the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act (SBREFA), but there are continuous delays. SPI will monitor OSHA’s progress. SPI is also watching combustible dust activity under the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS) and comment on National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards 654 and 652. SPI is currently developing comments for the revision of NPFA 652, due June 29.

Risk Management Plan Rule

EPA began the rulemaking process for revisions to the Risk Management Plan (RMP) Rule with a Request for Information (RFI) in 2014. RMP requires facilities that meet threshold quantity requirements of specific regulated substances to develop plans in case there is an accidental release. After the SBREFA process, EPA released a proposed rule in February 2016. SPI will file comments. OSHA is now convening a SBREFA panel for potential revisions to the Process Safety Management of Highly Hazardous Chemicals (PSM) standard, for which OSHA issued an RFI in December 2013. SPI will continue monitoring.

California’s 75% Initiative – Manufacturers’ Challenge 

In 2011 California passed legislation that sets a non-mandatory target of a 75% reduction of solid waste to landfill through reduction, recycling, or composting by 2020. The “75% Initiative,” as it’s referred to, is being implemented by CalRecycle, the state agency that handles recycling and recovery efforts. The Manufacturers’ Challenge is a program that is intended to target packaging materials and sets a goal of a 50% reduction of packaging to landfills by 2020. SPI has submitted comments and met with CalRecycle, and also participated in the Manufacturers’ Challenge meeting, which took place on January 5, 2016. More updates on the initiative and CalRecycle’s outreach efforts to manufacturers could occur in 2016, and SPI will keep the plastics industry informed as they arise.

Friday, February 19th, 2016

Meet Walter Lincoln Hawkins: The African-American Pioneer Who Broke Racial and Scientific Barriers

Growing up in the early 20th century, Walter Lincoln Hawkins faced immeasurable obstacles as an African-American, orphaned at a young age, attempting to gain an education to pursue his passion of math and science. He persevered though, becoming a true pioneer in the world of chemical engineering and polymers, and paving the way for many in the plastics and telecommunications industries, regardless of the color of their skin.

Hawkins received a degree in chemical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1932, and went on to receive a master’s degree in chemistry from Howard University and a doctoral degree from McGill University. All of these were remarkable feats for the time, but his inspirational accomplishments didn’t end at graduation.

During World War II Hawkins helped develop synthetic substitutes for rubber, a vital wartime resource that was largely controlled by Axis powers. Among his numerous technical achievements, he designed a lab test to predict the durability of a plastic surface using spectroscopy. Hawkins also greatly extended the life span of plastic substances by helping to create new techniques for recycling and reusing plastics.

After the war, Hawkins went on to work at AT&T’s Bell Laboratories, becoming the first African-American scientist on staff. Some of his earliest and most notable work at Bell Labs involved, with the help of partner Victor Lanza, creating a polymer coating, now called “plastic cable sheath,” which would protect telephone cables. Previous wire coatings were costly, toxic, or too easily worn down by the weather. Hawkins’ polymer, which was made from plastic with a chemical additive composed of carbon and antioxidants, was cheaper, safer to use, and resistant to extreme weather conditions. This polymer saved billions of dollars, enabled the development of telephone service around the world, and is still in use today to protect fiber optic cables.CableSheathe

Throughout his career Hawkins made enormous contributions as a mentor and educator. He became the first chairman of the American Chemical Society’s Summer Educational Experience for the Economically Disadvantaged (SEED) program. Additionally, he served as a board member at several educational institutions. Having found his passion in science, and making the most of it, Hawkins passed on all that he learned, encouraging young people to pursue careers in science.

Hawkins was a true pioneer of the 20th century. His work led to tremendous breakthroughs in plastics, telecommunications, chemical engineering and beyond. But, perhaps even more importantly, he was a pioneer for young people who were disadvantaged and minorities, striking out a path for them to follow through education and on to a fulfilling career in science and chemistry.

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016

A Day of Firsts: SPI Does the Iowa Caucus

By Mark Garrison, Senior Vice President, Membership and Business Development, SPI

This is my first blog—ever. There were a lot of firsts for me on the day of the Iowa caucuses. First time in Des Moines, first time to attend a caucus, first time to attend a presidential candidate’s primary after-party, and the first time I rode in a Bentley. More on the Bentley later.

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

SPI hosts several regional events throughout the country. All are open (at no cost) to both members and non-members. However, this is one was a little different. Our member host, i2tech, also known as Innovative Injection Technologies, certainly made an event for the ages.  It was unique right from the start. Those of us who were able to come in the night before were treated to a production of “Caucus – The Musical.” Two hours of political fun and hilarity. The actor who played Ronald Blunt (aka Trump), should be nominated for a Tony award.  The funny one-liners came so fast, I honestly can’t remember my favorite one.

Our event hosts, Bob and Josh Janeczko, planned out a very busy caucus day.  We started with a plant tour of the i2tech facility.  I2tech is a custom injection molder, with 31 molding machines.  The largest being a 3300 ton Milacron. Some of their customers include John Deere, Arctic Cat, Dee Zee and Kongsberg. After the tour, Jennifer Jacobs, chief politics reporter for the Des Moines Register (and also, Bob’s daughter), spoke to our group and brought us up to “political speed” on the events that were about to unfold during the caucuses later that evening.

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Jennifer Jacobs, politics reporter for the Des Moines Register, talking to SPI.

After dinner and some networking, we were off to see a caucus event. Most people are accustomed to pulling a lever behind a closed curtain. I wanted to witness a Democratic caucus because it is the exact opposite. The democrats in Iowa do things in a very public way when they caucus, persuading the undecided voters and competing candidate voters to literally come over to their side of room before the final head count   is taken and votes are final. We heard many impassioned speeches. And most were well thought out. However, my favorite speech of the night actually had very little substance, which is probably why I liked it so much. It was from a Clinton voter trying to convince an undecided voter that he should caucus with them. His exact words were “you need to vote for Hillary because Hillary looks so much better in person than on TV.” I doubt that was the right approach, as I watched that undecided voter get up and head straight over to Bernie Sanders’ side of the room.

With the caucus behind us and the night still young, our group headed downtown to see what candidate after-party we could crash.  As it turns out, crashing one of these parties really isn’t all that hard.  Simply show up, sign in, provide an email address and before you know it, you’re standing in the middle of the Marriott ballroom with several hundred excited supporters waiting for Marco Rubio to show up and give a speech. I guess I was excited to be there as well because I posted on social media what I was up to. Not long after my post, I received a text during the middle of Rubio’s speech. Apparently the back of my head made it on TV when the camera scanned the crowd. I guess I’m famous now.

The end to my evening was a ride back to my hotel in a Bentley. A Bentley! There is no better way to end a great day than a ride in a Bentley. Thanks again Bob and Josh at i2Tech! Can we do it again in four years?