Thursday, November 17th, 2011

Dubai and the Launch of a Global Plastics Industry Action Plan for Solutions on Marine Litter

This week I had the opportunity to travel to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates on behalf of SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association.  Dubai, in and of itself, is a fascinating city with lots of extremes such as the world’s tallest building (the Burj Khalifa), the world’s largest acrylic panel (measuring 32.88 meters wide x 8.3 meters high x 750 mm thick and weighing 245,614 kg) at the Dubai Aquarium and Aquatic Zoo, and the world’s largest mall (the Dubai Mall).  Although Dubai has many interesting distractions, the purpose of my trip was to participate in a meeting with fellow plastics industry representatives from around the world to work together and create a global action plan for solutions on marine litter.

As I’ve written about in a previous blog post, marine debris is an issue affecting all of us.  In March of this year in conjunction with the 5th International Marine Debris Conference in Honolulu, SPI, along with 46 other world plastics organizations in 29 countries signed and released a Declaration for Solutions on Marine Litter.  The Declaration described steps that the industries will take, and suggested approaches and platforms for global cooperation and future partnerships to address the issue of marine litter.  It outlined a six-point strategy for industry action, and advocated close cooperation with a broad range of stakeholders to shape solutions for the marine environment.  Since March an additional  seven plastics industry associations have signed onto the declaration.  The declaration was a start, however the real question is:  “What’s the plan to address the issue of marine litter?”

At the meeting in Dubai, the global representatives worked together to create a global action plan for solutions on marine litter. This action plan describes steps to be taken and progress to be reported in 2012.  A total of over 99 projects were identified, covering 32 countries, in addition to the global activities supported by all signatories.  Amongst the activities that the industry is implementing within the joint declaration is a partnership with The Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection (GESAMP).  GESAMP is an advisory body to the United Nations (UN) system on the scientific aspects of marine environmental protection. The plastics industry has committed to support GESAMP’s effort to evaluate the sources, fate and effects of micro-plastics in the marine environment.

As part of SPI’s commitment to addressing marine debris,

we will continue our focus on SPI’s own marine debris initiative, Operation Clean Sweep (OCS).  The OCS program includes more than 140 companies that have pledged to take necessary management steps to ensure that spilled resin pellets do not make their way to local waterways or the ocean.  For 2012 SPI will be focused on growing and expanding the program globally.  We have a goal to double the number of SPI member companies that participate and to double the number of international association partnerships (in addition to those we have in place with the British Plastics Federation, Canadian Plastics Industry Association, Fédération de la Plasturgie, and Plastics New Zealand).  We also plan to utilize SPI’s own NPE2012 event in April 2012 as an opportunity to promote the OCS program and to get companies to sign up for this great program committed to zero pellet loss.

The time spent with industry colleagues in Dubai has provided an important opportunity to collectively work together to implement solutions to tackle the critical issue of marine debris.


Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

Turning Plastics into Fuel in Northeast Ohio

The whole concept of “waste-to-energy” is not new to the plastics industry. Plastics are derived from petroleum or natural gas giving them a stored energy value higher than any other material commonly found in the waste stream. As noted in a previous blog:

“…plastics have a high calorific value, equivalent to or higher than that of coal, so they can provide a very useful source of energy after serving their useful life as a plastics product. Plastics left in municipal waste incinerators (energy-from-waste plants) help generate useful power and heat, while using separated fractions such as paper/plastic mixtures as alternative fuels in power stations offer the prospect of replacing coal and reducing the emission of greenhouse gases.”

We know plastics can be used to produce energy, but what about the idea of turning plastics into fuel? A recent article in the Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH) focuses on two small Northeast Ohio companies – PolyFlow LLC and Vadxx Energy – that are working to make oil and motor fuel from used polymer and rubber-based consumer products. Both companies are active members of a “cluster” of companies put together by NorTech, a Cleveland nonprofit focused on developing the region’s high-tech economy.

As an example, Polyflow cracks the mixed plastic and rubber waste into aromatics, the building blocks of polymer and rubber manufacturing, using a patented pyrolysis process. Aromatics are traditionally derived through the importation and refining of crude oil. Some of the benefits of this technology include the diversion of plastic and rubber waste from landfills, the creation of green collar jobs and a reduction of our country’s dependence on foreign oil.

Vadxx Energy has a process called “thermal depolymerization” that the company says can break down any plastic, using a proprietary technology that heats the shredded material in an air-tight crucible. The system turns out an oil that, according to the company, is similar to the very best U.S. oil.

Automobiles being powered by old plastic bottles or tires?  This idea could be a reality based on the work of companies like PolyFlow and Vadxx Energy. The idea of recovering fuel from plastic is alternatives to tamoxifen one that should continue to be explored. As the nation seeks to increase its energy security and looks to sources of new and alternative energy, energy recovery through plastics should be part of the mix.

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

Plastics Industry: Are You Aware of All that NIST Offers You?

Recently I had an outstanding opportunity to meet with key leaders of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) headquartered in Gaithersburg, MD.  NIST, an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce, was founded in 1901 as the nation’s first federal physical science research laboratory. Over the years, the scientists and technical staff at NIST have made major contributions to image processing, DNA diagnostic “chips,” smoke detectors, atomic clocks, X-ray standards for mammography, and pollution-control technology. The individuals I met with are some of the brightest scientists in the U.S.

The meeting was coordinated by key individuals in NIST’s Polymers Division which is the largest organization within NIST specifically serving SPI members and the overall plastics industry. I talked with NIST about the major role that the plastics industry plays as the third largest manufacturing sector in the U.S., work that NIST is undertaking specific to plastics, and opportunities for SPI and its members to work more closely with NIST. I was amazed at the range of projects that NIST undertakes – from cutting edge scientific research to programs specifically geared to help grow U.S. manufacturing.  So plastics industry professionals, are you aware of all that NIST offers you? Take a look at these examples:

Programs Established for Joint Industry/Government Partnerships

  • As I’ve blogged about previously, the Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) is a nationwide network of centers to assist small and mid-sized U.S. manufacturers to help them create and retain jobs, increase profits, and save time and money. The nationwide network provides a variety of services, from innovation strategies to process improvements to green manufacturing. MEP also works with partners at the state and federal levels on programs that put manufacturers in position to develop new customers, expand into new markets and create new products.
  • The Technology Innovation Program (TIP) is a grant program where NIST and industry partners cost share the early-stage development of innovative but high-risk technologies.  On the horizon and pending approval of the FY 2012 budget, TIP expects to hold funding competitions in one or more of the following research areas: manufacturing, advanced robotics and intelligent automation, civil infrastructure, energy, healthcare, water.  SPI will keep its members posted when the competition is announced.

User Facilities Open to Industry

Measurements and Standards

How are you sure that your company is measuring melt flow rate correctly?  Or how do you know you have the right molecular weight calibration for a polymer?  NIST can help you out here.  As part of its mission, NIST supplies industry, academia, government, and other users with over 1,300 Standard Reference Materials (SRMs). These artifacts are certified as having specific characteristics or component content, used as calibration standards for measuring equipment and procedures, quality control benchmarks for industrial processes, and experimental control samples.  So if you want to make sure you are measuring certain properties the right way, tap into NIST’s resources. Also, don’t forget about the Material Measurement Laboratory, whose activities range from fundamental and applied research on the composition, structure and properties of industrial, biological and environmental materials and processes to the development of best practice guides that help assure measurement quality. 

NIST has a number of other plastics related groups such as the Polymeric Materials Group (which develops and implements methodologies and metrologies for determining the scientific origins of materials degradation required for predicting the service life of polymeric materials, components, and systems exposed in their intended or accelerated exposure environments), the Sustainable Composites Project (focused on the development of tools to measure the fundamental structure-processing and structure -property relations associated with sustainable polymer composites), and much more.

My meetings were just the beginning steps in growing the relationship between SPI and NIST.  SPI wants to ensure that the plastics industry doesn’t miss out on great opportunities to work with some of the world’s brightest scientists to advance the industry.

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

Safer, Cheaper, Greener: Plastic Money


Just this week the Canadian government unveiled its new, plastic-based $100 bills which will hit consumers’ wallets by November. The Bank of Canada will start issuing high-tech currency derived from polypropylene resin instead of the traditional cotton paper. The new bills will be the same size and color as current Canadian bills.

But what are the benefits? Well for one, the plastic currency will be lighter, thinner, more durable and is expected to last 2.5 times longer than its paper predecessors. Their lighter weight also will cut transportation costs. In addition, the Bank of Canada intends to recycle them when they wear out, providing another environmental benefit. Their resistance to crinkling and becoming limp like paper bills will make the new notes easier and more efficient to process. For example, they won’t be rejected by vending machines because of bent corners, and they will stack neatly for counting machines.

From a security standpoint the plastic bills will be much more difficult to counterfeit. Between 2001 and 2004 a rash of counterfeiting increased the number of counterfeit bills in Canada to 470 per million, which resulted in making the country one of the worst in the world for the circulation of funny money. The new plastic bills will include holographic images in the bill’s large window (such as one in the shape of a maple leaf in good Canadian fashion). The plastic bills also will feature raised ink, hidden numbers and metallic images printed on a transparent window.

Once the $100 bills are out, the $50 bills are expected to circulate by March 2012 followed by the more common, $20, $10, and $5 bills which are expected to circulate by the end of 2013. The Bank of Canada’s Governor Mark Carney has said that these new plastic banknotes are “safer, cheaper, greener.” Right on the money, Governor! I couldn’t agree more – plastics to the rescue again!

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

Plastic Implant Marks Key Milestone in Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ Recovery

This week in the news we have seen coverage of plastics being used in a critical brain surgery application which is truly amazing modern medicine. Several months ago Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), who has represented Arizona’s 8th congressional district since 2007, was shot. The injury Giffords sustained when she was shot led to brain swelling – an emergency that necessitated the removal of a portion of her skull to relieve pressure.

Physicians put a plastic implant – or bone flap as doctors call it – in place to fully cover her brain. The implant replaced the piece of her skull that was removed to relieve swelling after she was shot and will protect the brain and the skull. The flap itself is custom made, manufactured to slip perfectly into place based on a three-dimensional model of the skull built from a CT image. Typically, the implant is made of clear or white plastic, and tightened into place with titanium screws. According to Biomet, the manufacturer of Giffords’ implant, the material is porous to allow bone to fuse to the edges of the object in the future.

This surgery was a significant and necessary step in Representative Giffords’ recovery and is another example of the important role plastic plays in the world of medicine.

As has been mentioned in previous blog posts, the plastics industry is responsible for many advancements in the world of medicine. State-of-the-art medical equipment utilizes plastic and helps people recover, rehabilitate, and regain their quality of life. Whether it is medical equipment such as stethoscopes made using polypropylene and polystyrene, or disposable medical applications (blood bags, tubing, catheters, examination gloves and inhalation masks as examples) made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyurethane, or incubator domes made from acrylic or polycarbonate to defend premature infants against infection, plastics are there.