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.

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

One Pellet at a Time – OCS Makes a Difference Around the Globe

By Patty Long, SPI Vice President of Industry Affairs

By taking the Operation Clean Sweep (OCS) pledge, your company is contributing to preserving water quality and wildlife; making your workplace safer for employees; and keeping valuable economic resources where they belong. OCS’ mission is to prevent pellet loss during the use and transportation of materials.OCS logo

SPI and the American Chemistry Council (ACC) continue to encourage other companies to participate because they believe OCS guidelines should serve as best practices for every plastics company in the world. SPI and ACC offered plastics associations around the globe a royalty-free license to provide OCS tools to their members. In the past year, Denmark, Chile, Costa Rica and Brazil have signed on to OCS bringing the total number of international plastics organizations using these tools to 12. In addition, SPI and ACC enacted a new supporter-member category for other plastics associations and brand owners to help in promoting OCS to their members, suppliers and customers. This expansion helps increase awareness of the pellet loss problem and helps brand the best practice.

SPI ‘s spring board meeting raised attention to the issue during a three-hour marine debris plenary session and voluntary beach cleanup. As part of the plenary, SPI highlighted research by the well-respected SEA Research Foundation that works closely with the Ocean Conservancy. SEA research recorded an 80 percent decrease in the concentration of pellets (measured from 1986 to 2010). Those dates coincide with SPI’s first efforts to raise awareness about this important issue. This reduction in the concentration of pellets could not have been achieved without the commitment of companies.

As SPI and ACC continue to promote the program and seek endorsements from other nongovernmental organizations and third parties, companies are encouraged to engage in the following steps.

  • Publicize your commitment to sustainable practices by:
    • Posting the OCS supporter logo on your website
    • Framing  and displaying your OCS member certificate in your lobby
    • Hanging your OCS flag where others can see it
    • Referencing OCS and your commitment to zero pellet loss in an upcoming company newsletter

If you do not have and would like these recognition materials, please email us at ocs@plasticsindustry.org.

  • Let us know how the tools are working for you and your employees. Would refresher webinars be helpful for plant managers?  If you’ve had success stories, would you be willing to share them with us?
  • Make sure that your customers and suppliers know about your membership in OCS. They will appreciate your commitment to sustainable practices.
  • If you belong to other plastics-related associations, encourage them to become a supporter member of OCS to help spread the word further.

Together, we are making a real difference! Taking the OCS pledge is the first step in preserving our rich marine environment.

Friday, August 1st, 2014

Plastics Champions Host Energetic Group of Industry Officials at Annual Fly-In

Successful Event Results in 120 Meetings with Top Legislators

When given the opportunity to talk openly with Washington officials, SPI members don’t hesitate to express their views about issues important to the plastics industry. Plastics Champions from SPI and eight other organizations met on Capitol Hill July 23 for the 2014 Plastics Industry Fly-in. The annual gathering gives association members the chance to sit down face-to-face with key lawmakers and their staffs.

Frank Kuhlman, Maxi-Blast Inc.; Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.) and Katie Masterson, SPI

Frank Kuhlman, Maxi-Blast Inc.; Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.) and Katie Masterson, SPI

Before venturing off to the House and Senate buildings, the group of about 110 industry attendees and association representatives were provided an informative briefing by an Obama administration official and other high-level Washington leaders.

First up was Ali Zaidi, of the White House Domestic Policy Council. After talking in generalities about energy, the climate and jobs, Zaidi opened the floor to probing questions about business taxes, the Keystone XL Pipeline and business regulations.

Other speakers represented the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC).

Off to Meet the Members

Fly-in attendees, who became industry lobbyists for the day, brushed up on issues before meeting with senators like Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and House members to include and House Energy and Commerce Chair Fred Upton (R-Mich.), Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) and Elizabeth Esty (D-Calif).

Among the key issues discussed:

Energy Policy – SPI and others support energy policy that encourages prudent development and utilization of domestic natural resources. The plastics industry supports energy recovery from non-recycled plastics, development of the Keystone XL Pipeline and responsible use of domestic energy resources that may be enabled through hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking.

Chemical Regulation – The federal Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) is being reviewed by Congress, even as the Environmental Protection Agency continues to broaden the scope of regulatory activities under its existing TSCA authority. The plastics manufacturing industry supports efforts led by Senators David Vitter (R-La.) and Tom Udall (D-NM), as well as those of Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), to move consensus-based legislative proposals forward.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) meets Dow Chemical's Jeff Wooster

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) meets Dow Chemical’s Jeff Wooster

Any revision that ignores the significant socio-economic benefits of products made with chemicals, such as plastics, could threaten the industry’s ability to develop and utilize the materials that are essential to the plastics industry.

Consensus-based green building standards – The federal government needs to encourage competition among green building rating systems that do not discriminate against products with proven life-cycle benefits. The best way to advance these goals is to require rating systems to be developed in conformance with established voluntary consensus procedures.

Competition among railroads – The plastics industry supports increasing competition among railroads to ensure that goods are shipped efficiently to both

domestic and international markets. The industry urges policy reforms that encourage fairness for freight rail shippers by removing regulatory barriers to competition and ensuring captive shippers have greater access to competing freight rail service.

Science-based decision-making by plastics industry regulators – A regulatory approach based on sound science is critical to sustain the use of plastics as an important material of choice. Both individually and collectively, several key federal agencies hold enormous power over the plastics manufacturing businesses and products. Among the most important are:

At the end of the day, 120 meetings took place in Capitol Hill. Aside from SPI, other participating associations were: American Chemistry Council (ACC), American Mold Builders Association (AMBA), International Association of Plastics Distribution (IAPD), Plastic Pipe and Fittings Association (PPFA), Plastics Pipe Institute (PPI), Manufacturers Association for Plastics Processors (MAPP), Vinyl Institute (VI), and Western Plastics Association (WPA).

Thursday, July 31st, 2014

Plastic Bottles Shed Light on Needy Families

This article originally appeared on the Plastics Makes it Possible Facebook Page

In the impoverished neighborhoods in and around Manila, Philippines, millions of people live in darkness in their homes—even in the daytime. Electricity is often too expensive, and windows are a building expense that many cannot afford.

To change this, a local social entrepreneur has created a program calledPMIP Photo 73114
A Liter of Light that illuminates the homes of underprivileged families by creating solar-powered light bulbs from a resource some may find surprising: used plastic soft drink bottles.

Volunteers for A Liter of Light begin by gathering discarded, clear plastic bottles. The volunteers then fill each bottle with water and a few drops of chlorine bleach (to retard algae growth). They then fit the bottle snugly into a custom-cut hole in the roof of a home, with the bottom of the bottle extending down into the room below. This allows the clear plastic bottle and water to refract the sun’s rays and scatter light into the house. A silicone plastic sealant applied to the roof and bottle prevents water leaks during rainy tropical weather.

On a sunny day, this simple device can produce approximately 50 watts of light in an otherwise dark room.

Because plastics are lightweight and durable, the bottle lights are easy to install and are expected to last more than five years. And the materials to produce the lights cost very little—or nothing, in the case of discarded bottles gathered by volunteers—which makes it possible for A Liter of Light to help many, many people. The program envisions installing plastic bottle lights in one million homes by the end of 2012.

In an area in which some households earn less than a dollar a day, the plastic bottle lights reduce household expenses, as well as the fire hazards associated with faulty electrical wiring and candles. And when the lights need to be replaced, the plastic bottles can be recycled and new solar lights can be installed for little or no cost.

People often find creative ways to reuse plastic products. These new uses can be practical (such as reusing a plastic grocery bag as a trash can liner), or they can be fun (like making a Halloween costume out of plastic bottles). And sometimes, they can help improve people’s lives by creating a solution to a big problem—in this case, “a sustainable lighting project which aims to bring the eco-friendly bottle bulb to low-income communities nationwide.”

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

Plastics Take the Lead in Sports Safety and Performance

Previously published in Plastics Engineering and posted with permission from the Society of Plastics Engineers.

Imagine a beautiful Friday night in autumn. From Bangor to Bakersfield, that means high school football: bleachers packed with proud parents and screaming students, the gridiron bathed in dazzling light, a colorful marching band playing the school fight song, and teenage boys knocking heads for a couple hours.

And, thankfully, lots and lots Football playersof plastics.

When you think about any modern sport, chances are pretty good that plastic gear is involved… gear that not only helps protect against impacts but also that helps drive athletic performance.

Take football, for example… from the top of the head to the tip of the toe, football players are armored in plastics:

  • A helmet with a tough outer shell and inner cushioning, plus a faceguard and maybe even a visor.
  • A mouth guard to help protect teeth.
  • Shoulder pads that now also often wrap around the chest.
  • Hip, thigh, and knee pads.
  • Cleats that are molded from many types of plastics.
  • And then the jersey, pants, socks, gloves – even athletic supporters – that today are made with plastics. There’s even a newish term to describe these fabrics: “performance” plastics.

And if it’s the NFL, chances are they’re playing on a plastic “grass” field, as well. (But apparently pro footballs are still made of leather.)

It didn’t use to be this way. Plastic sports gear has been around only for six or seven decades. Plastic football helmets, for example, were introduced in 1940 by the Riddell Company. (Previous helmets were made primarily of leather and quickly were replaced by these higher-performing materials). Professional, collegiate and amateur sports organizations today mandate the use of safety gear – and most of it is made with plastics.

Why the change from leather and other materials to plastics? Safety obviously was and is a big driver. Plastics’ properties enable all sorts of lightweight, cushioning options that contribute to safety – plus more diverse, cool and comfortable designs.

In fact, much of modern plastics sports gear actually evolved as the various sports evolved, as athletes pushed themselves harder and further, which increased the risk of injuries. For example, football of yore was a rough-and-tumble game but not the gladiator-like sport of today. Football safety gear continues to evolve as the players get bigger, the hits get harder and the football community focuses more intensely on preventing concussions.

Another example: Race car fatalities declined even as (paradoxically) the cars became faster with the introduction of lighter weight carbon fiber-reinforced plastic chasses that improve driver protection. In addition, risky (some say crazy) new sports have evolved as new technologies made possible by plastics were developed – can you imagine motocross racing at the X-Games without head-to-toe plastic safety gear?

To be fair, no gear can guarantee the safety of pro or amateur athletes. Columnist George Will has claimed that football as we know it will not survive, and author Malcolm Gladwell has argued that college football should be banned – precisely because sports safety gear cannot fully prevent head injuries. Regardless the validity of their argument, it’s clear that sports gear cannot take the place of reasonable sports rules and plain old common sense. Plastic and other safety gear is not a panacea that can prevent severe trauma. It is, however, an essential part of sports safety, from toddlers on trikes to 325-pound offensive guards.

But it’s arguably performance that is driving more innovations in modern sports gear.

  • Removing just a few ounces from a sprinter’s shoe decreases drag and weight in an event where every hundredth of a second counts (thus the switch from leather to plastics in most athletic shoes). The maker of Usain Bolt’s running shoes sells a Bolt-inspired shoe that weighs a mere 5.4 ounces, about as much as your average apple.
  • Tennis racquets have evolved from clunky laminated wood frames strung with catgut strings (made from sheep intestines) to high-tech carbon fiber-reinforced plastic frames with tough nylon, polyamide and other plastic strings that help enable the pros to deliver 150+ mile per hour serves.
  • Pro football jerseys usually are made from nylon or polyester with spandex side panels – the materials wick away sweat and hold the jersey tight to the skin, which makes it harder for opponents to grab hold. And strips of hook and loop fasteners (often Velcro®) keep the jersey tucked in, away from an opponent’s grasp.
  • Slick swimsuits reduce friction and drag to give swimmers a bit of an edge. Sometimes too much: swimsuits made with polyurethane foam provided so much of a competitive edge by reducing drag and improving buoyancy that the international community now disallows them, and the sports records set while wearing them bear an asterisk.

This duel focus on safety and performance at the professional level is also good news for amateur athletes such as those high school football players (and their parents!), since the high-tech innovations created for the extreme athletes often are adapted for mere mortals – in fact, many high-performance plastics initially used in sports gear for professional athletes today can be found in the everyday gear on neighborhood sports store shelves.

So what’s the future hold for plastics and sports gear? Likely an increased reliance on composites to continue to increase the strength and decrease the weight of gear. And advanced cushioning technologies incorporated into sports clothing – often where cushioning previously was not present, such as soccer uniforms. Plus more form-fitting compression sportswear, typically made with spandex.

And one more advance: the broader use of recycled plastics in sports uniforms. Remember those REALLY BRIGHTLY COLORED (some said gaudy) Adidas uniforms worn by six college basketball teams last March? They were made from 60 percent recycled plastics.