Tuesday, September 16th, 2014

A Skills Gap Needs a Skills Bridge: SPI Launches PlasticsU

The manufacturing industry accounts for more than 17.4 million American jobs and nearly 12 percent of the nation’s GDP, but it should account for more.

The skills gap separating manufacturing from fulfilling its true contributive potential for the American economy has been well documented, and at this point isn’t even a recent, new or isolated phenomenon. On both a global and strictly American basis, jobs in the skilled trades have been among the most abundant, and yet the most difficult to fill, for many years now, although it should be noted that part of the issue keeping people from taking jobs in this field is perception.

More than a century has passed since the first assembly line developed for the manufacture of the Ford Model T began operating, but tell someone today to picture a job in manufacturing and the image that pops into their head is still a sepia-toned photo crowded with men in flat caps and overalls performing menial tasks over and over again, until a whistle signals their release. Americans often view the factory as the product of a less enlightened era, stranded in time like a mosquito in amber, but the reality is that today’s factories are nothing like your grandfather’s. Manufacturing as an industry has kept pace with the modern world—technologically, operationally and environmentally—and in many ways it even functions ahead of its time, providing excellent support for employees and their families, enabling the innovations that MFGDay2014Logomake modern life possible and ratcheting up the possibilities for what the future will eventually look like. Events like Manufacturing Day exist to pull back the curtain on the nation’s factories, and dispel the myth that these state-of-the-art facilities are somehow antiquated.

As manufacturing in the U.S. confronts its perception gap, it’s also working to combat its more-easily-quantified skills gap: the difference between the number of workers needed, and the number of workers qualified, to keep factories humming. For the plastics industry, the nation’s third-largest manufacturing sector that already comprises nearly 900,000 American workers, the first block in the bridge that closes the plastics industry manufacturing skills gap is PlasticsU, officially launched Monday by SPI and Tooling U-SME, a leading workforce development and training provider.

“Our industry has some of the best and brightest workers, operating top-of-the-line equipment and technology,” said SPI President and CEO William R. Carteaux. “Unfortunately, many of the technological advancements made recently are being held back by a growing manufacturing skills gap, which is why SPI partnered with Tooling U-SME to launch PlasticsU.”

SPI Plastics-U-final-outlinesAimed directly at the heart of the manufacturing skills gap, PlasticsU provides manufacturers a new suite of online training programs tailored specifically to the plastics industry. Courses were designed and added in order to meet the needs of the broadest selection of stakeholders possible, meaning companies throughout the supply chain can find something helpful when it comes to training and developing their workforce. Expertise levels range from basic introductions to the most advanced studies, with more than 400 courses and more than 60 instructor-led training titles all conveniently available through the PlasticsU portal, offering companies the ease and flexibility that they need to design new workforce development programs or to augment their existing programs.

“The plastics industry will not realize its full capacity for growth and production unless companies take an active approach to workforce development,” Carteaux added. “PlasticsU offers these companies flexibility and convenience to make this process easy.”

Manufacturing in the U.S. has already made enormous strides since the recession and is poised to become an even greater part of the American economy. The industry continues to combat its perception gap, an effort to which SPI has been proud to contribute. But the manufacturing skills gap is real, and so are its limiting effects. A modernized manufacturing industry is one that has modern problems, and the manufacturing skills gap is a perfect example: a modern problem to which PlasticsU is a modern solution. As the manufacturing industry continues to build the bridge that will close its skills gap, SPI and PlasticsU makes a bold case for the bridge being made out of plastics.

Learn more about PlasticsU here.

Friday, September 5th, 2014

The California Bag Ban and a Lesson on How Not to Legislate

By Lee Califf, Executive Director, American Progressive Bag Alliance (APBA)

The California State Senate approved SB 270 last week, sending a fee on paper bags and the nation’s first statewide ban of plastic bags to Governor Jerry Brown (D) for consideration. Several environmental groups have all but danced in the streets to celebrate the bill’s advance, despite the fact that:

  • plastic bags comprise less than a half of a percent of the U.S. municipal solid waste stream and banning them will have little, if any, effect on reducing litter;
  • plastic bag production generates 80 percent less waste and requires 70 percent less energy to manufacture than paper counterparts; and
  • plastic retail bags are 100 percent recyclable, reusable and made with American natural gas, an environmentally-friendlier alternative to other fossil fuels.

But each of these facts obscures a bigger point about the legislative process that brought SB 270 to Governor Brown’s desk: this so-called “environmental” legislation never had anything to do with the environment.

The Bag “Bargain”

In the process of making environmental policy choices, it often doesn’t take long for the discussion to veer away from the scientific and toward the emotional. Broad considerations for the planet’s future touch deep ideological nerves, so this makes sense, but it can often stifle conversations about actual science, as well as the real environmental ramifications of the policy proposal.apba logo_2012

Recognizing this, proponents of SB 270 decided never to entertain the very good environmentally-friendly reasons to vote against the bill, some of which are outlined above, but instead stood on the assumed truths that have similarly derailed so many other policy discussions. Furthermore, money spoke louder than environmental imperatives or the supposedly inherent evil of plastics, as supporters of the bill made grocers and unions an offer they couldn’t refuse: support SB 270 and we’ll direct the fees collected from the paper bags to you.

The Future

The bill’s lack of real environmental bona fides, along with its enactment via back-room deal, should lead anyone to scoff at the suggestion that SB 270’s success will somehow amount to a win, for any constituency, environmentally-focused or otherwise. For them it’s a symbolic victory, and while they’re celebrating the nation’s only statewide bag ban, all the baggage that comes with this deal isn’t commendable.

In many ways, the bill effectively scams consumers out of billions of dollars in bag fees. It’s a tax, of sorts, but typically taxes go back into state coffers to further benefit the public. In SB 270’s case, the fees collected from consumers won’t be used to pay for a road, a fire truck, a better school or even a marginal environmental benefit; they’ll be used to line the pockets of California grocers.

California has created a prime example of how not to legislate (fleecing consumers and damaging the state economy, all in the name of an imaginary environmental benefit), and other states might not be too eager to follow in California’s footsteps for that very reason, as well as some additional legal concerns. Most states probably won’t be willing to put this kind of fee on bags and give the money to grocery stores, and even if they were willing to do so there are some serious constitutionality questions about that. In effect it’s a tax that’s not going to the government. The private interest gets the money.

But on a more basic level, most states also wouldn’t, or shouldn’t, want to enact a tax on their citizens that essentially amounts to a form of corporate welfare for grocers, all while threatening the state’s economy. SB 270 puts 2,000 Californians that are employed at risk of being unemployed, all for the sake of a dirty deal between California grocers and union bosses. APBA stands with those workers, and with all Californians, as we continue to fight this dangerous and misguided piece of legislation.

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2014

SPI Members Champion Plastics in State Capitals

By Jane Adams, SPI Senior Director, State Government Affairs

Following meetings with Assemblymember Dr. Richard Pan (D-9) and Assemblymember Roger Dickinson (D-7) at the state capitol, Mike Miller, president and CEO of Sacramento-based Plastic Package Inc. (pictured), secured commitments from the lawmakers to tour his facility.

Following meetings with Assemblymember Dr. Richard Pan (D-9) and Assemblymember Roger Dickinson (D-7) at the state capitol, Mike Miller, president and CEO of Sacramento-based Plastic Package Inc. (pictured), secured commitments from the lawmakers to tour his facility.

As part of its mission to represent plastics manufacturing industry at all levels of government, SPI is actively working in the state capitols to influence public policy on issues of concern to the industry. Recently Sacramento-based Plastic Package Inc. President & CEO Mike Miller experienced firsthand the value  of the advocacy team’s work through his experience meeting with California assemblymembers. Miller, who is an active member  of SPI and the Rigid Plastic  Packaging Group, met with Assemblymember Dr. Richard Pan (D-9) and Assemblymember Roger Dickinson (D-7).

Miller briefed Pan and Dickinson on his operations and secured commitments from both men to visit his manufacturing facility. Plastic Package Inc. (www.plasticpack.com) is a source for high-quality, thin-gauge, thermoformed-plastic-packaging containers and trays. Miller also offered to organize a town hall during the visits so that company employees would have the opportunity to engage with their elected officials.

During separate visits wiAdvocacy Plastic Packaging Logo 4th other assemblymembers, SPI also briefed lawmakers about the plastics manufacturing industry’s contribution to jobs and the gross domestic product (GDP) at both the state and national levels. Discussions also included the industry’s ongoing concerns with the Safer Consumer Products regulation and its potential impact on food packaging and food contact materials. Other discussion topics focused on the state’s recycling and recovery programs, the industry’s opposition to plastic product bans and taxes as well as support for K-12 education initiatives in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

Manufacturing Day 2014: This Isn’t Your Grandfather’s Factory

By Adam Cromack, SPI, Marketing and Communications Specialist

MFGDay2014LogoDespite what some people may try to tell you, manufacturing in the United States isn’t dead. Today it represents more than 17.4 million American jobs, accounting for nearly 12 percent of our national gross domestic product (GDP). And as representatives of the third-largest manufacturing industry in the country, SPI knows how critical it is to get this story out in the open.

That’s why SPI member companies joined forces last year for Manufacturing Day, to tell the plastics industry’s story of how the right skills can make a difference. By opening their doors, these companies and thousands of others had a unique opportunity to share what they do with the communities where they operate. As a true grassroots initiative, everyone involved is committed to closing the gap in skilled labor, which represents the single largest challenge to manufacturing in practically every industry.

Public perception of manufacturing jobs is, to say the least, disturbing. Common myths smother the conversation, painting a picture of low-skill jobs that offer low pay and little personal reward. As SPI and its members know, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Today’s manufacturers are some of the most highly-trained, well-paid employees in the workforce, working on state-of-the-art equipment. This one fact alone represents the first hurdle that must be cleared in changing public perception. Participation in Manufacturing Day allows companies to interact directly with job seekers and students who are still forming opinions about potential careers, and starts the dialogue for a manufacturing job as a legitimate opportunity. No longer will young professionals see a factory as an antiquated dungeon filled with tired, worn-out workers unhappy with their jobs.

Manufacturing Day exists to directly confront these misconceptions, and to promote facts about the manufacturing industry that are often overlooked:

• Modern factories use an abundance of advanced technologies including automation, 3D printing, robots and screen technology.

• The average annual salary of manufacturing workers is more than $77,000.

• Manufacturing workers have the highest job security of all other jobs in the private sector.

• Ninety percent of manufacturing workers receive medical benefits from their employer.

On Oct. 3, hundreds of companies will once again open their doors to the public and show what they are really made of and, more importantly, what they are not made of. SPI is proud to continue its role as a supporting sponsor of Manufacturing Day, and is even more excited for its members to display the power of plastics manufacturing.

Learn more about Manufacturing Day and how you can get involved at www.mfgday.com.

Tuesday, August 19th, 2014

For Sorters’ Eyes Only: A Brief History of the RIC

Plastics recycling 25 years ago boiled down to two types of products: PET soda bottles and high-density (HDPE) milk jugs. But if the public, and the plastics industry, wanted to expand the plastics recycling effort, the first thing they needed was a good way to automatically identify the different plastic types.

“It was hoped that if a system was developed where the basic resin was marked on the container itself or on the articles that recyclers or sorters on the recycling line could actually identify those numbers and separate them into a variety of different bins,” said Thomas Pecorini, technology fellow at Eastman Chemical and chairman of ASTM Section D20.95.01 during a recent webinar hosted by the SPI Recycling Policy Subcommittee.

This desire gave birth to the modern resin identification code (RIC) system, created by SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association in 1988 to help make it easier for sorters and recyclers to separate different types of materials into one of six (eventually seven) different, broadly-defined resin groups. The goal then was the same as it is now; to reduce waste and ensure that the recyclable plastics entering the municipal waste stream could be collected and given a second life. The question has become, is the RIC still a vehicle for achieving that goal?

Resin ID Code Triangles

The RIC.

What began as a tool to help sorters and recyclers, however, eventually grew to become one of the hardest aspects of plastics recycling for consumers to understand. A poll conducted by the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) and Earth911 between May and July found that consumers are easily confused when it comes to recycling plastics.

“With more and more plastic being produced, it’s essential that plastic products that have reached end of life enter the recycling stream,” said Robin Wiener, president of ISRI. “As long as confusion reigns, consumers are apt to throw plastics away that should be recycled. This Earth911/ISRI Opinion Poll demonstrates a strong need for additional education, particularly by municipalities, on what can be recycled and how to do it.” Among the poll’s findings was the fact that 65 percent of respondents answered that they don’t understand what is and what is not permissible when recycling plastics. Additionally, 17 percent of those consumers were most confused by the meaning of the recycling numbers, or resin identification codes (RICs).

The irony in the poll’s findings is that the RIC, created to facilitate recycling, might be making consumers less likely to recycle, simply by confusing them, but it’s important to remember that the RIC was never designed for consumers in the first place. “The RICs were never really intended to suggest that all items with a resin ID code are collected for recycling,” Pecorini said. “Moreover they were never actually meant to be used by the general public and the original system was meant to be an optional system.”

But the deceptive simplicity of the original RIC made it an obvious, although ultimately misleading education tool for municipalities hoping to outsource their sorting procedures to consumers themselves. “Municipal recycling programs tried to bring their sortation-at-home programs and they began informing the consumers that these RICs exist and used it as a public education tool to say if you had six bins in your garage you could self-sort all the different materials,” Pecorini said. “But unfortunately that also fell out of favor because the consumers didn’t want to spend that much time on recycling.”

The RIC’s legacy to the general public is the erroneous suggestion that the presence of a RIC number, surrounded by a chasing arrow, means that the item is automatically recyclable. “This has kind of created a series of problems,” Pecorini said.

As such, in 2008 SPI began working with ASTM to take control over the RIC and convert it to a globally-accepted standard that conveys more information about the material, but the process is a balancing act. Making changes to the labeling system too suddenly could negatively affect moldmakers, and adding too much information to further particularize one of the existing RICs could lead to situations like China’s where an explosion of different categories has given them a system with 140 numbers, as opposed to the RIC’s meager seven.

However, most can agree that replacing the RIC with a more productive 21st century counterpart will require more specifics to make collected articles easier to sort into recyclable groups, and that the RIC should not be used as a public education tool. But many other issues remain under consideration, and ASTM’s work will continue as they strive to set a standard that considers the needs of moldmakers, equipment manufacturers and processors as well as those of consumers. “What we see in recycling right now is transitions from a lot of consumer education and relying on the consumers to sort the material, to more automated sorting,” Pecorini said. “I personally would hope that someday we get to the point where we can tell consumers to just put all your plastics in a bin, and that may very well happen down the pike…but right now that isn’t in place.” That is certainly a vision that is shared by SPI.