Friday, August 19th, 2016

A New Study May Make Conversations about Plastics Easier

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Steve Russell, vice president of the American Chemistry Council’s Plastics Division

A guest post by Steve Russell, vice president of the American Chemistry Council’s Plastics Division.

Has this happened to you? You’re at a dinner party or family gathering or neighborhood get-together. Someone asks you what you do. A conversation about plastics ensues. And you struggle to find a really simple way to explain plastics’ many benefits and contributions to sustainability.

I’m guessing we’ve all been there.  And the answer just got easier to explain.

New study

A new study by the environmental consulting firm Trucost uses “natural capital accounting” methods that measure and value environmental impacts, such as consumption of water and emissions to air, land, and water. The authors describe it as the largest natural capital cost study ever conducted for the plastics manufacturing sector.

The results?  “Plastics and Sustainability: A Valuation of Environmental Benefits, Costs, and Opportunities for Continuous Improvement,” finds that the environmental cost of using plastics in consumer goods and packaging is nearly four times less than if plastics were replaced with alternative materials.

Trucost found that replacing plastics with alternatives would increase environmental costs associated with consumer goods from $139 billion to $533 billion annually.

Why is that? Predominantly because strong, lightweight plastics help us do more with less material, which provides environmental benefits throughout the lifecycle of plastic products and packaging. While the environmental costs of alternative materials can be slightly lower per ton of production, they are greater in aggregate due to the much larger quantities of material needed to fulfill the same purposes as plastics.

Think about it. Every day, strong, lightweight plastics allow us to ship more product with less packaging, enable our vehicles to travel further on a gallon of gas, and extend the shelf-life of healthful foods and beverages. And all of these things help reduce energy use, carbon emissions, and waste.

Why do this study?

This new study follows an earlier report called “Valuing Plastics (2014)” that Trucost conducted for the United Nation’s Environment Programme (UNEP). “Valuing Plastics” was Trucost’s first examination of environmental cost of using plastics. While clearly an important study, it begged the key question: compared to what? After all, consumer goods need to be made out of something.

So ACC’s Plastics Division commissioned Trucost to compare the environmental costs of using plastics to alternative materials, as well as to identify opportunities to help plastics makers lower the environmental costs of using plastics. The expanded study also broadened the scope of the earlier work to include use and transportation, thus providing a more complete picture of the full life cycle of products and packaging.

We see “Plastics and Sustainability” as a contribution to the burgeoning and vital global discussion on sustainability. Like any single study, it doesn’t “prove” that plastics are always better for the environment than alternatives. But it is an important study based on a rigorous and transparent methodology. And it provides a fuller picture of the environmental benefits of using plastics.

“Plastics and Sustainability” provides the plastics value chain with important information on plastics and sustainability so that we all can make better decisions. The entire plastics value chain is engaged in discussions with policymakers, brand owners, retailers, recyclers – and consumers – about how to be good corporate citizens and contribute to sustainability. A better understanding of the life cycle of materials will better inform these discussions and should lead all of us to more sustainable materials management decisions. This study’s findings also will help inform us how to further reduce the environmental cost of plastics.

In other words, making smart choices about what we produce and how we produce it will benefit people and the planet.

New perspective

So in light of this new study, next time you or I struggle for the right words, perhaps let’s try this:

“Did you know that replacing plastics with alternatives would actually increase environmental costs by nearly four times?”

Let me know how it goes.

You can find more information about the Trucost study and some interesting visualizations of the findings here.

Thursday, May 19th, 2016

Plastic Packaging and the Ability to Feed People

FoodPackaging_StockPhotoOne of the simplest reasons packaging is poised to become a nearly $1 trillion industry in the next decade is because it contains, protects and preserves food and water. With as much food and water as we consume, the prevalence of food waste, and packaging’s role in eliminating it, was a prominent theme at this year’s Flexible Film & Bag Conference, which wrapped up in Houston, Texas last week.

The plastic films and flexible plastic packaging that covers meat, poultry, cheese, vegetables and other edible goods prolong the life of the products they contain by shielding them from bacteria, heat, cold and moisture, among other things. Attendees representing the companies that manufacture some of these items discussed ways to make their products more efficient and effective in combating lost and wasted food, a global issue that’s reached critical levels in environmental, economic and humanitarian terms.

Chopin at the 2016 Flexible Film & Bag Conference

Chopin at the 2016 Flexible Film & Bag Conference

“Food waste is an incredible problem,” said presenter Lamy Chopin of Dow Chemical. “If you consider the ripple effect of losing valuable food, the farmers that have invested in the land…any of that product that doesn’t get consumed has a significant greenhouse footprint.” The financial impact of food waste, according to Chopin, is up to $300 billion lost annually.

Environmentally, the impact of food waste is at least ten times larger than the environmental impact of packaging, and part of what makes that the case is plastic’s unique material and manufacturing properties. “One of the reasons why plastics are winning in the space of packaging in particular is they’re incredibly efficient,” Chopin noted. “They win out in terms of energy use and impact” when compared to other packaging materials, he added.

The epidemic of food waste and the ramifications it has for society are a huge priority for agencies, NGOs and governments around the globe. Plastic materials, particularly plastic films, will have an important role to play in combating these issues, and doing so as sustainably and efficiently as possible.

Tuesday, May 10th, 2016

Brand Owners, Sustainability Leaders Launch Initiatives at First-Ever Re|focus Recycling Summit & Expo

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SPI’s first-ever Re|focus Recycling Summit & Expo wrapped up in Orlando last week. The two-day program featured executive-level forums, diverse educational sessions, dozens of cutting-edge vendors in the Expo Hall and a fair share of big announcements from some of the world’s most recognizable names in consumer products:

  • Keynote speaker Kelly Semrau, S.C. Johnson & Son Inc.’s senior vice president of corporate affairs, communication and sustainability, announced her company’s latest initiative to help build the infrastructure to eventually make Ziploc bags widely recyclable via curbside recycling programs.

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  • Walmart’s Ashley Hall noted that the world’s largest private employer will be using the How2Recycle label on its private label products.
  • Consumer goods giant Johnson & Johnson reiterated its commitment to creating sustainable products and educating consumers about the importance of recycling bathroom goods through the company’s Care to Recycle online toolkit, which shows families, what, how and where to recycle.

SPI also released its latest Plastics Market Watch report, Automotive Recycling: Devalued is now Revalued.

In addition to the announcements and educational sessions, Re|focus boasted a 10,000 net square foot exhibit hall, a core focus of the conference where attendees learned about various products that could help their companies achieve their sustainability goals. They could also see demonstrations of various types of recycling equipment, like this nifty shredder.

Shredder from Jacob Barron on Vimeo.

The Exhibit Hall also gave visitors the opportunity to learn more about how a plastic product can be recycled and converted into a completely different product for consumers. The Life Cycle Application center featured a number of different products that start out seemingly having little to no value, but, after reclamation and recycling, go on to become a valuable high-end feedstock for manufacturing. The Center was produced by SPI in partnership with Wellman.

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“We were so impressed by the turnout and candid conversation about working together collaboratively to reduce waste and promote recycling, with stakeholders and industry influencers representing various parts of the supply chain,” said Kim Holmes, senior director of recycling and diversion at SPI. “Re|focus had a successful inaugural summit and next year, we will return with an equally robust program to continue to drive conversation on how we all play a role in collectively committing to sustainable practices. We look forward to hosting in 2017.”

Wednesday, January 27th, 2016

Snowzilla: No Match for Plastics

MiaHeadshotBy Mia Freis Quinn, SPI Vice President of Communications

I thought we’d be losing our minds by now, Day 6 of Snowzilla, the blizzard that dumped two feet of snow on the Washington, D.C. area.

But we’re not, somehow?  How is that?  My husband, our two young sons and I are (literally) digging the mountains of snow outside.  What went right during this storm for us?  The top 6 highlights:

1. Good Food.  We didn’t just stock up for this storm, we finally got it right and did it well.  Two of everything.  Brie.  But also salad.  Good wine.  Ingredients for our favorite recipes.  And, our Blue Apron box arrived two days before the storm.  We were hardly slapping together PB & J’s to get through; we were indulging in cod & potato brandade.

SnowzillaFood2. Sleds!  Sledding!  These plastic beauties delivered.  One neighborhood kid created a “luge” track for our block in his front yard, which my son must have gone down 30 times (while the adults enjoyed beverages around a fire pit).

SnowzillaSledAt four months in to my tenure at SPI, I find I’m way more aware of how much and how often plastic touches my life. And during this storm plastic was everywhere – all four of our shovels (especially prominent in the kids’ shovels), the sleds, our snowball makers, our boot trays, and other essential items, which brings me to…

3. Extra Insulation.  My biggest worry was that we’d lose power and freeze in our drafty house (we don’t have a fireplace).  So Friday morning I hit the hardware store and bought electric outlet sealers, window insulation and insulating tape.  All brought to you by…plastic.

4. Open-ended Play.  Santa brought my boys a plastic set of sticks and connectors that’s a fort-builder’s dream.  And every snow day needs a good fort.

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Other all-star entertainment items include our ever-reliable Magnatiles, Playmobil and Legos.  And keeping it uber-simple – the Costco bag of red solo cups – hours of building.  Again, all brought to you by…plastics.

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5. The Denver Broncos.  My hometown team, led by Peyton Manning, came through against the Patriots this weekend, and the victory was sweet! Fellow Broncos fans in our neighborhood shoveled themselves out, converged in our living room, and we all dined on Cincinnati Chili in homage to my husband’s fallen Bengals.

6. No Milk Panic.  Tip:  For all you who have declared during a storm “We’ve already run out of milk!  Now what!?” – buy several containers of organic milk next time.  The expiration dates are ridiculous!  You could stockpile it and be hunkered down for a few months.

Have there been some rough moments?  You bet. At one point this chili my neighbor left in my fridge fell out and crashed to the ground. I wish she’d used a plastic container.

SnowzillaChili

Wednesday, January 20th, 2016

The Growing Role of Plastics in Construction and Building

Go to just about any construction or job site around the world and you will find the building blocks architects have used for centuries: metals, wood, stone and masonry. But take a closer look at the new home being built in your neighborhood or the commercial building taking shape in your city, and a comparatively new building tool emerges: plastics and plastics derivatives.

Zero Energy Home

The building and construction sector is currently the second largest consumer of plastics (behind packaging) and it will increasingly use plastics and plastics derivatives given its wide functionality and distinct advantage of other traditional building materials in terms of flexibility, lower costs, energy and weathering efficiency and durability according to an SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association report issued at the 2016 International Builders’ Show in Las Vegas.

The report, “Plastics Market Watch: Building and Construction” is the fourth in a series published by SPI analyzing key factors impacting the plastic industry’s key end markets.

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The leading uses of plastics for residential and commercial construction include roofing, insulation, wall coverings, windows, piping, composite “lumber” planks and rails, flooring and structure wraps.

“The innovation within the plastics industry to improve and diversify products is matched by the building and construction sector’s pace to find and use new solutions to address fundamental issues like structural integrity, energy savings, recycling, and cost savings,” said William R. Carteaux, SPI President and CEO.

According to the report, while the building and construction sector has not regained its prerecession vigor, it is making steady progress with the promise of growth in the future. Globally, China, India, and the U.S. will be the primary drivers of construction activity as India is on pace to overtake Japan as the third largest construction market between 2017 and 2022.

Domestically, an estimated 1.3 million new housing units will be needed per year for the next decade to keep pace with population growth and existing housing unit characteristics, a dramatic increase of several hundred thousand more per year when compared to the Great Recession. “The buying behavior and economic security of Generation Y and Millennials will be the key over the next several years,” Carteaux explained. “Encouraging signals from recent surveys indicate that younger generations are inclined to buy homes.”

The dramatic inroads made by plastics on building and construction sites according to the SPI study are linked to plastics’ utility, cost, ease of installation, longevity and the “propensity of the plastics industry to constantly develop new products to supersede traditional building materials in many phases of the building process.”

“Plastics play an exciting and growing role in building and construction around the world, particularly given the drive to find ‘Smart’ designs with improved environmental and energy efficiencies,” Carteaux concluded. “Our industry needs to continue to collaborate with engineers and architects on building materials and find new innovations and advances. We have a strong, versatile, and ecologically responsible material—the plastics industry should expand its presence on construction sites in the years ahead.”

SPI will continue its Plastics Market Watch reports in 2016—“Automotive Recycling” will be published in the first quarter. Previous reports, including “Automotive & Transportation, “Healthcare & Medical Devices” and “Packaging” are available on the SPI website.