Monday, July 27th, 2015

Zero Energy Homes – Made Possible by Plastics

Imagine a home that produces its own electricity. At times it may use some energy from the power grid, and at times it may give some back. But in the end, the give and take balance out.

We actually do not have to imagine, because these homes already exist. And plastics play a fundamental role.

Zero Energy Homes

They are known as “zero energy” homes. Zero energy does not mean the homes use no energy for heating, cooling, and electricity. It simply means that the homes’ own energy supply is equal to the homes’ energy use. As noted, the homes at times may use energy from the community power grid and at other times may provide energy to the grid, but over time the home is net energy neutral, which is why they sometimes are called “net zero-energy.”Zero Energy Home

Homes that actually produce more energy than they consume over time are called “positive energy” or “net positive energy” homes.

These homes now are a reality, through a combination of passive energy sources such as solar and geothermal and a proper design with modern plastic foam insulation and other materials.

Wasted Energy

Nearly 40 percent of our nation’s energy is consumed in our homes and buildings, and heating and cooling account for most of the energy use in a typical U.S. home, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Unfortunately, much of it is wasted due to outdated building practices. In addition, EIA estimates that six percent of energy is lost in transmission over power lines. Wasted energy not only hurts our environment, it hits our wallets, as well.

Zero energy homes can contribute significantly to our nation’s efforts to improve energy efficiency in two ways—by providing passive electricity on site and eliminating long distance transmission power loss.


How do we know this really works? The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) built a “Net Zero Energy Residential Test Facility” near Washington, DC, in 2013. On its July 1 one-year anniversary, NIST announced that the home produced more energy than it used, enough to “power an electric car for about 1,440 miles.”

NIST found that “instead of paying almost $4,400 for electricity—the estimated average annual bill for a comparable modern home in Maryland—the virtual family of four residing in the all-electric test house actually earned a credit by exporting the surplus energy to the local utility.”

The house achieved this “despite five months of below-average temperatures and twice the normal amount of snowfall.”

What Role Do Plastics Play?

Insulation obviously is key to reducing energy loss in any home, zero energy or not. While each building is unique, zero energy homes typically rely on modern plastic foam insulation systems under and around the foundation, in the walls, and in the roofing, which can dramatically decrease the amount of energy needed to heat and cool a home. Many of these insulation products do not simply increase R-value—they also help reduce leaks and air loss to seal the building envelope.

And these are not novel or unique insulation systems—they all are available to homebuilders.

For example:

  • Sheets of polystyrene foam under and around the home’s foundation create a barrier and insulate the floors and walls. Foundations are poured directly onto the insulation sheets, which also are attached to below-grade foundation walls.
  • Insulated concrete forms—usually expanded polystyrene forms that stack and are filled with concrete and rebar to create walls—provide excellent insulating properties and create a very solid building.
  • Structural insulated panels typically sandwich large sheets of expanded polystyrene foam between oriented strand board (OSB), creating large wall systems with few seams, greater R-value, and improved strength.
  • Polyiso or polyurethane foam installed under the roof system instead of in the attic floor helps seal the building against leaks and increase the R-value of the roofing system. The NIST home used this method to achieve an R-value of 75 in its roofing system, which is about twice the typical R-value. In addition, since the attic is tempered space, ductwork doesn’t shed its cool or hot air in un-tempered space.
  • The NIST building used six-inch instead of four inch-studs to increase the space for insulation between studs, plus a plastic air moisture barrier and four inches of polyiso on the exterior, which virtually eliminates thermal bridging (the transfer of heat between the interior and exterior caused by non-insulating materials).
  • While not used in all the above insulation systems, plastic house wrap significantly reduces the infiltration of outside air, helping to reduce the energy required to heat or cool the home.
  • Finally, plastic sealants (caulks, mastics, foams, tape) are applied to any remaining gaps that may exist between floors, walls, roofs, and windows, as well as around ductwork joints.

NIST estimates that its home is almost 70 percent more efficient than the average area home.

“The most important difference between this home and a Maryland code-compliant home is the improvement in the thermal envelope—the insulation and air barrier,” says NIST mechanical engineer Mark Davis. “By nearly eliminating the unintended air infiltration and doubling the insulation level in the walls and roof, the heating and cooling load was decreased dramatically.”

To actually reach zero energy, many other energy saving products made with plastics are used, such as plastic piping for radiant heat and efficient water delivery, insulated window frames clad in plastics, highly energy efficient refrigerators, and even plastic roofing tiles that incorporate solar cells in the tiles themselves instead of having to install both tiles and panels.PMIP

How much does plastic insulation and other building products contribute to energy efficiency of zero energy homes—or typical suburban homes? A one-year study by Franklin Associates found that the use of plastic building and construction materials saved 467.2 trillion Btu of energy over alternative construction materials. That’s enough energy saved over the course of a year to meet the average annual energy needs of 4.6 million U.S. households.


While zero energy homes are still outside the norm, numerous events and trends are driving efforts to dramatically improve energy efficiency, from concerns over climate change impacts to substantial upgrades in building codes.

To encourage greater energy efficiency, NIST plans “to develop tests and measurements that will help to improve the energy efficiency of the nation’s housing stock and support the development and adoption of cost-effective, net-zero energy designs and technologies, construction methods and building codes.”

And according to NIST, some “states are taking steps toward encouraging or even requiring construction of net-zero energy homes in the future. For example, California will require that, as of 2020, all newly constructed homes must be net-zero energy ready.”

That is going to require help from a lot of plastics.

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

Friday, July 17th, 2015

Proper Use of Plastics in the Microwave is Safe

By Kyra Mumbauer, SPI Senior Director of Global Regulatory Affairs

In recent weeks, mainstream media outlets have carried articles suggesting that microwaving plastics could be dangerous. As the leading association in plastics manufacturing, it is incumbent upon us to help clarify information about using plastic food containers or wraps in microwaves.

 Kyra Mumbauer

Kyra Mumbauer

The key point is that plastic wraps and containers are not dangerous to use in the microwave if they are used in accordance with the directions on their packaging or the container itself.  The public should be sure to use any plastics for their intended purpose and in accordance with directions. Many plastic wraps, packages and containers are specially designed to withstand microwave temperatures. Be sure yours is one of them by checking the item or its label.

Recent articles have also directed the public to check the Resin Identification Codes on plastic containers and to avoid microwaving containers labeled 3, 6 and 7.  Consumers must be aware that these codes have no relationship to the safety of a plastic food contact product for its intended use. Food containers and packaging materials are manufactured using many different plastics, including Codes 1-7, and all must comply with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) extensive regulations designed to protect public health and the environment.

Before entering the market for consumer use, the components of products that come in contact with food must be submitted for review by the FDA. The FDA has assigned an entire office, the Division of Food Contact Notifications, which employs approximately 35 chemists, toxicologists, and other scientific staff, for the purpose of evaluating the safety and environmental impact of chemicals used to produce packaging and other products that may contact food.

microwavePlastics and additives are permitted only after the FDA reviews the scientific data and finds that they are safe for their intended use, such as in microwavable plastic trays.  FDA’s review includes an assessment of the potential for substances to migrate into the food under the specific condition(s) of use, in this case at high temperatures present in microwave cooking applications.  FDA then calculates the estimated dietary exposure to any substances that could migrate, reviews all toxicological data that is available on the substances that may migrate and determines whether that data supports the safety of the potential exposure.  The higher the potential exposure to a material, the more toxicity data is needed to support the safety of that exposure.  FDA’s comprehensive regulatory scheme ensures the safety of food contact products, including microwavable plastics, allowing FDA to focus its resources on other issues, such as foodborne illness.

Wednesday, July 15th, 2015

RGIII Should Promote Recycling Among Redskins’ Fans and Players

SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association is pleased that Robert Griffin III is taking an active interest in the health of our oceans. As the nation’s third largest manufacturing industry, we also care about the oceans and consistently take part in programs designed to prevent the loss of our raw materials and end-user products to the waterways. But, we are deeply concerned that Mr. Griffin is encouraging consumers and Redskins’ fans to stop using plastic bottles.RG3

Plastic bottles are widely recycled across the U.S., and their recycling rates continue to grow. Indeed, every ton of plastic bottles recycled saves about 3.8 barrels of oil?

After they are recycled, bottles and containers become valuable feedstock used to produce a variety of new products – from lumber for outdoor decking to carpeting, fleece jackets and t-shirts. In fact, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team just won the World Cup wearing Nike jerseys made with recycled plastic bottles.

Rather than encouraging fans to stop using plastic bottles, SPI suggests that Mr. Griffin encourage fans and other consumers to recycle plastic bottles and other appropriate products. The staff at SPI: The Plastic Industry Trade Association cordially invites Mr. Griffin and any other Redskins players to join us in touring a plastics recycling facility so that Washington’s team can learn more about recycling plastic bottles and similar materials. And one last note, to Mr. Griffin, if you take a close look at your football helmet and some of the gear used in your profession, you’ll gain a better understanding about the role plastics play in keeping you safe and hydrated on the field.

Monday, July 13th, 2015

Don’t Blame the Big Blue Bin

The Washington Post’s Defeatist Attitude Toward Recycling Harms Industry

By Kim Holmes, SPI’s Senior Director of Recycling and Diversion

SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association wants to clarify several points concerning recycling that were misrepresented in Aaron C. Davis’ June 20, 2015 article, “American Recycling is Stalling, and the Big Blue Bin is One Reason Why.”Blue Bin

Davis’ article states that, “recycling in recent years has become a money sucking enterprise,” and suggests that recycling cannot be done profitably.  It is true that some Material Recovery Facilities – or MRFs – are experiencing a confluence of factors that are creating an economically challenging business environment.

But, not all MRFs are operating in the red.  During difficult times, MRFs need to be agile, and sometimes willing to invest in equipment that will produce better quality bales of materials in more efficient ways. Unfortunately, many MRFs continue to use outdated equipment and would operate more efficiently if they invested in state-of-the-art machinery similar to what is more widely used in Europe and in some areas of the U.S. It is also important to note that Waste Management’s experience, as stated by Davis, is not representative of what is occurring at every MRF in America.

As a trade association representing the plastics industry, we work with our members to promote the benefits of recycled content to drive sustainability across the plastics manufacturing industry. In our industry, a reduction in the price of new plastics has at times narrowed the cost savings that might be found by using recycled plastics – but, that’s temporary. Indeed, there are key drivers that help sustain demand for post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastics, even when they don’t present cost savings.  Those include: publically stated corporate commitments to use PCR, use of recycled content as a market differentiator, and ecolabels that encourage, and in some cases, require use of recycled content for certain products.

And while it is true that some consumers unintentionally contaminate their blue bins by depositing inappropriate items, the use of blue bins results in a significant increase in desirable recyclable commodities.  The systematic increase in recyclables that come with “the big blue bin” is why we, along with many others, have invested in programs like the Recycling Partnership.  The Recycling Partnership helps communities transition to the blue bins to increase access to recycling, and that effort is coupled with proper consumer education so an increase in contamination can be mitigated. The claim made in the article that, “Consumers have indeed been filling the bigger bins, but often with as much garbage as recyclable material,” is a false generalization. Statements like this are misleading, and frankly dissuade people for participating in recycling.

Finally, we have deep concerns about the suggestion that government intervention may be necessary to “encourage investment and ensure that profit remain a public benefit.”  Market-based solutions that work with the public sector, such as the Recycling Partnership and the Closed Loop Fund, are growing and generating positive results.  We need to support these and other privately funded efforts rather than looking to the government for solutions. Government intervention can create systems that inadvertently pick winners and losers, meaning some otherwise profitable recyclers can be put out of business when the market is disrupted.  It’s not uncommon for government intervention to create unintended, and many times, unwanted externalities.

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.