Wednesday, July 1st, 2015

Legislative Recap: A Big Two Weeks for Plastics on Capitol Hill

The last two weeks have seen big developments on Capitol Hill, particularly for the $380-billion U.S. plastics industry. Below is a quick recap of the legislative shifts and successes that have been on SPI’s radar for the last two weeks:

-TSCA Reform Approved in the House of Representatives

After 40 years (!), the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) is closer now than it’s ever been to getting a much-needed update. In a 398-1 vote, the House approved H.R. 2576, the TSCA Modernization Act of 2015 on June 23. “The world is a different place than it was when the Toxic Substances Control Act was first enacted in 1976,” said SPI President and CEO William R. Carteaux in a statement issued after the vote. “The plastics industry has seen amazing growth and transformation in size and sophistication over the last four decades, but TSCA has remained largely unchanged. By approving H.R. 2576, the House of Representatives has taken a big step in the right direction, toward a regulatory regime that protects consumers without making the plastics industry comply with regulations that are redundant or based on outdated science.” Read the full statement here.

-Trade Promotion Authority Clears its Final Hurdle

A day after TSCA reform was approved in the House, and after one failed vote in the House and some behind-the-scenes legislative wrangling, Congress approved “fast track” or trade promotion authority (TPA), a critical step toward a strong, robust Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), among other trade deals that stand to be lucrative for U.S. plastics companies. “TPA will also make it easier for trade negotiators to reach other important free trade agreements (FTAs) that have the potential to further increase exports of U.S. goods. The U.S. only has 20 FTA partners currently, but they purchase a disproportionately high percentage of U.S. goods,” Carteaux said in a statement. “In 2014 these 20 countries received 47 percent of U.S. exports, worth a total of $765 billion according to the U.S. International Trade Administration. Furthermore the plastics sector enjoys a trade surplus of $20.6 billion with America’s existing FTA partner countries. Clearly, FTAs are good for U.S. manufacturing and for the U.S. plastics industry, and TPA will enable the U.S. to expedite more of them in the future.”

-Senate Approves Transportation Bill, SPI Urges Quick Action from the House

Before TSCA and TPA, the Senate approved, by unanimous consent, S. 808, the Surface Transportation Board (STB) Reauthorization Act of 2015. Specifically the bill aims to strengthen the STB by giving it the tools and flexibility to operate more efficiently as the economic watchdog of the nation’s rail shipping system. SPI and a coalition of other organizations applauded the approval. “Today, most shippers lack access to competitive rail service, and as a result railroad shipping rates have surged over the last decade, rising nearly three times as fast as inflation and trucking rates,” Carteaux said. “Accordingly, this has resulted in an increase in the number, cost and complexity of rate disputes. In its current state, the STB is ill-equipped to handle these developments, but the modest reforms in S. 808 go a long way toward fixing this problem by strengthening the STB and eliminating many of the inefficiencies that have hampered its ability to ensure competitive, sensible rail service to the nation’s plastics manufacturers. A stronger STB would help ensure that plastic materials and products can be shipped efficiently to both domestic and international markets.” Read the full statement here.

Stay tuned to SPI’s home page, Twitter feed and blog for future updates on any and all plastics-relevant legislative developments.

Friday, June 26th, 2015

Hispaniola Sustainability Forum Enlists Plastics, Recycling Industries in Effort to Solve Environmental Problems in Developing Countries

Spend all the money you’d like on machinery, collection bins and other pieces of recycling infrastructure; they won’t be worth much if people don’t fill them with recyclable products. The culture of recycling can often be as important as the infrastructure that supports it, and while here in the U.S. we have both, in other nations, they have neither.

DRBeachPhotoThat’s a problem that Jesús D’Alessandro, a sustainability researcher for the Universidad Iberoamericana (UNIBE) and director of the Foro Hispaniola de Sostenibilidad (FHS), is trying to bring his colleagues together to solve. “I lived in Japan for nearly four years,” he said, “and it was great to see that everyone cooperates. You have schedules issued by the municipalities and you have the days when the garbage is going to be collected, including polyethylene terephthalate (PET), glass and metals. You have to actually wash the recyclables, classify them and keep them at home until the truck comes along. It is a great example of community cooperation.”

The achievement of this level of awareness and cooperation between citizens and the public and private forces that enable this system to work is a result of a long-lasting social cohesion process in Japan, according to D’Alessandro, who noted that in his home country of the Dominican Republic, that process is only just beginning. “The work of educating the society on these basic sustainable development concepts here hasn’t yet been done with the appropriate level of seriousness,” he said.

In October D’Alessandro and other thought leaders from the region will gather for this year’s FHS. SPI first participated in last year’s edition and will be participating again this year in the shared hope that collaboration can help solve what’s both a dire situation in Hispaniola and a great opportunity—in the case of plastic waste management—for the plastics and recycling industries to crowdsource a solution to the island’s waste woes. “There are efforts from the government, but the government alone is not enough: there has to be collaboration from society,” D’Alessandro said. “We wish to integrate everyone into a single platform; everyone together dealing with these issues in real time, which is part of the virtue of the project. It’s an open platform for innovative ideas around sustainable development” that, D’Alessandro and SPI hope, can create a model for other developing nations to successfully manage their waste and recycling issues through the power of collaboration between governments, companies and thought leaders.

According to D’Alessandro, SPI’s participation is particularly valuable because of the depth of the plastic waste problem on Hispaniola (which consists of the Dominican Republic on the eastern half of the island, and Haiti on the west). “Dealing with plastics here is a big issue. Although the collecting industry has grown, there’s still very little collecting and recycling in comparison to our volumes of consumption, which makes it a huge environmental problem right now,” D’Alessandro said. “Unrecycled PET is a great problem here precisely because most of the bottles are of PET resin,” he added, noting that the transient nature of the plastic bottle adds to the problem, particularly when it’s used so frequently in a country that lacks both a culture of recycling and the infrastructure to support it. “The bottle is the item with the shortest service life, particularly the 20-ounce PET bottle. It’ll last in your hand for as little as a minute and a half,” D’Alessandro said. “That is why we have tons on the streets and, of course, there are other types of plastic packaging wasted as well, but the vast majority has longer service life and less demand.”

As any consumer in the U.S. is probably aware, PET is an extremely recyclable material, but again, in the presence of a lot of PET bottles, and in the absence of a recycling culture and recycling infrastructure, the problem has festered, creating both an environmental threat and other economic pressures on local companies and the state. “If there is no culture of recycling, and particularly a culture of classifying the garbage at home, you put all of those costs on the state, and of course the state is already struggling to face other domestic challenges,” D’Alessandro said. “We’re fostering a huge environmental problem and the state will not be able to handle it on its own. In fact, it’s not supposed to do it alone. Our generation is going to have to aid the process.”FHSLogo

The size of the problem in Hispaniola is matched only by the size of the opportunity it presents to industry and sustainability-minded policymakers and residents. Investments in technology and infrastructure on the island will go a long way toward ensuring Hispaniola isn’t consumed by a wave of PET bottles, but securing those investments, no matter how much we take them for granted here in the U.S., will require collaboration. “We’re missing an opportunity, while creating and sustaining an environmental problem,” D’Alessandro said. “We have the challenge to grasp the problem from a systemic perspective, and educate normal people about this issue.”

With any luck, D’Alessandro hopes the collaborative solutions discussed and implemented at this year’s FHS will spread beyond the shores of Hispaniola. “We wish to do this every year as long as it is possible, and so far it has been of interest to many people,” he said. “The goal is to gather everyone at a single table to discuss the challenges of society, and become a reference point for other societies in other places where this is a challenge,” a worthy goal, and one that fits firmly within SPI and the plastics industry’s pursuit of zero waste.

For more information of FHS, or to attend, visit their Facebook page here.

Tuesday, June 16th, 2015

Moving Beyond What’s Easy: Compatibilizer Report from SPI Aims to Improve Quality of Recycled Plastics, Enhance Chemical Skill Set throughout Recycling Value Chain

Plastic scrapThe plastics recycling industry presently faces an environment of lower bale quality and lower yields. It also faces increasing demand for post-consumer recycled material, right at a time when providing that material is especially complicated and costly. Rather than waiting around for bale quality to increase on its own (or for MRFs to place a greater priority on better sorting), recyclers need to become more sophisticated in order to adjust their operations to suit a new normal.

The problem of processing contaminated materials like bales of mixed multi-layer consumer plastic packaging is a chemical one, and so it makes sense to attempt to address it with a chemical solution. But chemistry, at least at the moment, isn’t a strong suit for most recyclers. “SPI is supported by polymer, additive, and machinery makers,” said Sal Monte, president of Kenrich Petrochemicals, a member of SPI’s Recycling Committee. “There are hundreds of different kinds of polymers/processes and their subset applications that all have different functions and market applications, but the recyclers who collect that plastic until recently have not had to operate at that level.”

“Most of the guys who deal with recycle are not chemists,” he added. “If they want to make useful parts that give recycled plastic a second life on a first-tier level, recyclers are going to have to become more knowledgeable about polymer material science.”

compatibilizers-whitepaper-coverEducation and innovation are key to raising the bar for the entire recycling value chain, and a new report, titled “Compatibilizers: Creating New Opportunity for Mixed Plastics,” is the SPI Recycling Committee’s latest attempt to challenge recyclers to move beyond what’s easy and push the entire recycling value chain forward in a way that yields new applications and new value for mixed post-consumer recycled plastics.

Broadly speaking, compatibilizers are additives that get incompatible polymers to “talk” to one another. They’ve historically been used successfully in both the prime resin industry and in the post-industrial plastics recycling arena to increase the value of bales comprised of select mixed polymers, but their use in the post-consumer world has been limited. That’s what the Recycling Committee’s report aims to change. It introduces readers and recyclers to the opportunities these additives present to their business, and to the economic imperative these companies have to find new solutions in a world where the process of recycling plastic materials is only getting more and more complicated.

“Recent findings suggest HDPE recyclers are suffering a 20-percent yield loss, while their PET recycling counterparts are experiencing upwards of 40-percent yield loss,” the report says. “This rate of material loss can quickly change the economics of an operation from black to red. If that yield loss could be put to use as another valuable feed stream, it can dramatically change the economics of an operation, as well as further divert valuable plastics from the landfill.” Compatibilizers are one option recyclers can consider in their efforts enhance their profits while meeting their sustainability goals.

They can also enable the right recyclers with the right expertise to find new markets for their materials by allowing them to impart more desirable qualities to the recycled resin they produce. Incompatible polymers that are recycled can’t be used practically since they delaminate during melt processing such as injection molding to make a PCR containing plastic product. Virgin polymers are also chain scissored during melt processing, giving the resultant post-consumer recycled resin lesser mechanical properties when compared to virgin resin. This limits these materials’ usage in all kinds of applications requiring performance specification polymers.

In essence, compatibilizers enable resins that would not otherwise neatly blend into a useful melt of plastic materials to mix in such a way that the recycled resins acquire greater performance qualities than if the compatibilizer hadn’t been included. They have the potential to give streams of recycled plastic the qualities they require to be more useful, if not as useful as their virgin forefathers, and therefore much more valuable. “The use of compatibilizers is being explored increasingly in the recycling industry as a way to create value in mixed feed streams that cannot be further segregated by resin type, either due to technical challenges related to collecting, cleaning and sorting, or economic infeasibility,” the report observes.

There’s a sort of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” simplicity to using compatibilizers to enhance the value of recycled materials—if you can’t fix bale quality, find a way to make bale quality matter less. But post-consumer recycling isn’t getting simpler; it’s getting more and more complex. To succeed in this environment, the recycling industry has to become more, not less, sophisticated. The Recycling Committee’s report is geared toward challenging recyclers to take their first step in that direction.

Monday, June 8th, 2015

A Simple Matter of Visibility: Brand Owners Amplify the Plastics Industry’s Voice in Congress

US CapitolYou wouldn’t think it’d be that difficult for a $380-billion industry to get its message across on Capitol Hill, but the voice of plastics doesn’t go unheard for a lack of size or influence (and certainly not for lack of trying). The issue is more that, to many lawmakers and American voters, the manufacture of plastic materials and products is opaque. Many consumers don’t even know where plastics come from. These materials have become so ubiquitous in modern American living that they’re considered as much a part of the landscape as the purple mountains majesty and amber waves of grain.

The fact that plastics are everywhere is key to the industry’s success and a testament to its ingenuity, but it’s a blessing and a curse. Plastics play a vital role in the economy, but to get the industry’s voice heard from a regulatory perspective, plastics has to educate policymakers and officials who, consciously or not, take the plastics industry for granted.

Brand owners play a key role in amplifying this message, and doing so yields its own benefits, according to SPI Brand Owner Council Chair Jay Olson, manager, materials engineering & technology for John Deere. Olson joined some of his suppliers and other members of the plastics industry supply chain on Capitol Hill recently to help advocate on behalf of plastics and clarify the vital connection between regulations upstream and how they ultimately affect brand owners and their customers.

“They don’t necessarily recognize the names of the manufacturers or the smaller companies, so having us participating with the discussions brings instant recognition,” Olson said. “The meetings I had, they were both with legislators in rural districts, so when I said John Deere they instantly knew that it’s part of the agriculture in their district, and they say the connection of the whole supply chain and how it’s important to the end customer, and voters and jobs.”

SPI Brand Owner Council Chair Jay Olson of John Deere, Inc. (R) SPI FLiP Vice Chair Annina Donaldson of Maxi-Blast, Inc. (L) discussing the plastics industry supply chain in a recent meeting with a congressional staffer.

SPI Brand Owner Council Chair Jay Olson of John Deere, Inc. (R) SPI FLiP Vice Chair Annina Donaldson of Maxi-Blast, Inc. (L) discussing the plastics industry supply chain in a recent meeting with a congressional staffer.

“Most of the jobs are created by the smaller companies anyway, but they don’t have the visibility that brands do,” he added. “They like the visible; they don’t always see the invisible.”

Olson used the example of material deselection as a regulatory volleyball that is aimed further down the supply chain but could have serious ramifications for companies like John Deere, depending on where it lands. “With material deselection and the regulation and restriction of certain chemicals that go into the materials, that increases our costs and it makes our sourcing decisions more complex,” he said. “Say on a tractor, the fuel tanks are all plastic for a number of reasons: cost, lightweight, flexible. If we have to go back to steel, it increases our costs. It increases quality problems in the factory, so the net value to the customer of deselecting a material that we’re dependent on affects the final customer.”

Any company in the plastics supply chain can try to illustrate this to lawmakers and regulators, and many of them do, and do so successfully, but having a brand owner’s name recognition goes a long way toward getting the message to stick.

This isn’t a charitable endeavor on the part of brand owners either: using the power of their brand name to aid their suppliers ultimately helps the brand owner’s business as much as it helps the supplier. “We can be successful if we can help our suppliers be successful,” Olson said. “With all of the regulatory issues that they have to deal with that we don’t necessarily have to deal with… today we just say, oh that’s a supply chain problem. That’s the process some brand owners prefer, but it’s really everybody’s problem.”

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

Millennials in Plastics

A guest post by Michael Stark, divisional manager, material handling and auxiliaries at Wittmann Battenfeld, Inc. and chairman of SPI’s Future Leaders in Plastics (FLiP). Originally published on LinkedIn.

FLiP_logo-2Where did they go? With a decade of traveling for and working in the plastics industry under my own millennial belt, I must say, my peers are hard to find and I start to wonder why. Was it our upbringing and a bias towards an office job developing the next app for our phones? Or trading dollars and cents at some financial organization? Were those careers considered “sexier” for us? Did baby boomers raise us to turn our backs on manufacturing?

I look back at my own introduction into plastics—a summer internship through a family member at a plastics manufacturer. At the time I thought “it’s a job and the money is good.” I really had no idea what this industry was. On day one of this internship, I found myself standing in front of a sub-ten second cycling, over one thousand-ton machine, producing over one hundred parts per cycle. I will never forget the sound, the sight, and the feeling I had. The hair stood up on my arms; goose bumps from watching. It was tons of steel, moving fast, with complex automation and programming, an awe inspiring display of mechanics, chemistry, and thermodynamics. Since that day I have been addicted to this industry, in which I have spent over the last decade building my career, and what a great career it’s been.  If it were not for the family member that got me the internship, I would have never have had the exposure, never had this career.

I’ve asked the few millennial peers I’ve met in this industry and it’s the same story—it was a family member, a friend, or a family business that led them to plastics. I say thank you for those who got us into this industry, because we enjoy it. But in the same breath, your recruiting effort fell short by a long shot; it didn’t do enough.

Michael Stark, SPI FLiP Chairman

Michael Stark, SPI FLiP Chairman and Divisional Manager, Material Handling and Auxiliaries at Wittmann Battenfeld, Inc.

I just read an article about Millennials representing over one third our labor pool; overcoming Gen X’ers and the now retiring baby boomers. But in the plastics industry I just don’t see it. What I see is a significant labor shortage that is eminent in the next decade, and what’s to be done about it? Offshore our efforts even more? What ever happened to the excitement of making something tangible for a living in this country? Did our parents leave this out of our upbringing? If building and programming highly complex robotics is not “sexy”, if producing lifesaving medical components and devices, cutting edge light weight cars, biodegradable materials, or the next big consumer product is not “sexy” to at least some of us Millennials, then what is?

So where did all my fellow Millennials go? Why did you not consider this industry? Did you not know it existed? Because if so, we as an industry need to fix that and fast.

Trust me, it is not a dark and dingy industry. If that’s your reason, then you need to see it for yourself. Or perhaps I’ll film a movie “The Wolf of Plastics” to bring the sexy back. We need skilled people, technical people, business people, and everything in between. We need younger generations to bring the spirit back to making things. We need you.