Friday, December 2nd, 2011

The U.S. Capitol Demonstrates How Waste-to-Energy is Done

A tip of the hat to Cal Dooley, president and CEO of the American Chemistry Council (ACC), for the article he published on November 28 in Roll Call adknowledging how the U.S. Capitol recently showed leadership in boosting the waste-to-energy process. On November 1st, the Capitol campus began sending as much as 90 percent of its non-recycled solid waste to Covanta Energy’s waste-to-energy facility across the Potomac River in Alexandria, VA.

The U.S. Capitol Building.

Non-recyclable trash from the U.S. Capitol now goes to a waste-to-fuel plant, not into a landfill.

Before the decision to do that by the Architect of the Capitol in collaboration with the House Administration Committee, the fuel traditionally referred to as waste had gone to landfills. Dooley noted that in 2010 more than 5300 tons of non-recycled waste was taken from the Congressional facilities, but instead of being buried the Capitol trash now will create enough energy to power a House of Representatives office building for several months. (Having recently been in one of those buildings on behalf of members of SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association, I can testify that those buildings are very large.

Plastics of various types are, of course, part of the Capitol trash. SPI and Dooley’s ACC have long made clear that although recycling plastics is always preferable, when energy can be recaptured from trash that will not be recycled, burying it makes no sense. The energy value of plastics is greater than that of coal, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) prefers waste-to-energy over landfills.

Dooley quotes an EPA finding that waste-to-energy makes electricity “with less environmental impact than almost any other source of electricity.” He then helpfully adds, “Yes, you read that right.” He must have been reading my mind.

Many SPI staff members have detailed the merits of waste-to-energy on this blog, for example here, here, and here. In

Covanta Energy's waste-to-energy plant, Alexandria, VA

The Covanta Energy waste-to-fuel facility in Alexandria, VA

addition, the SPI website contains many articles spelling out the technology’s superiority to burying fuel in a landfill. Lately waste-to-energy is getting longer legs.

In a recent interview, Greg Wilkinson, president and CEO of the Canadian Plastics Industry Association (CPIA), who clearly favors turning waste to energy, was equally clear that the general public has a mindset problem: We think of this trash as waste that we need to hide or bury, so we hide or bury it.

I’m sure that SPI President/CEO Bill Carteaux could only guess at how many times he has spoken to business and industry groups in favor of waste-to-energy rather than waste-to-landfill. That has been the policy of SPI for some time, and likewise for ACC.

Lacking a statistical survey, I’ll estimate that waste-to-energy makes sense to nearly everyone in the plastics industry. It should make sense to everyone in the U.S. but it doesn’t. Some are concerned about environmental impact, regardless of the EPA statement above. Others take the NIMBY position – not in my back yard.

Those two factors could explain why Western Europe, with a population slightly larger than the U.S., has over 400 waste-to-energy plants, and more in the planning stages, while the U.S. has only 86. But to me the mindset problem Greg Wilkinson described is even more fundamental. So then, a quick rethink: That stuff’s not waste, it’s fuel. Pass it on.

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

Recycling Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) Is On the Rise.

Let’s say goodbye to one more myth about plastics – the one that says expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam cannot be recycled. EPS, often called Styrofoam, which is a Dow Chemical trademarked product, is already being recycled commercially.

Kudos to Natalie Morris for her article (October 10, 2011) in the State Journal-Register (Springfield, IL) titled “Springfield furniture store goes green.” It describes how the Ashley Furniture HomeStore discovered it could recycle the EPS foam that came wrapped around its furniture, and make money doing it.

Back in 2006, the store’s general manager Scott Nation couldn’t believe how much paper and plastic waste was being created. The Ashley team started looking for ways to reduce it, particularly the foam that protected furniture in shipment. It was the major factor, at least by volume. Ashley found a way to deal with it, by way of Styrocyclers LLC (Marietta, GA).

Styrocyclers sells many recycling systems, including the Styrocycler that Ashley acquired. It melts the EPS foam, drastically reducing its volume. Nation told Natalie Morris that the machine turns about two refrigerator-sized containers of foam into one dense block about the size of a cinderblock. Ashley sells the Styrocycler’s 5-inch by 5-inch bricks linked into logs to Midwest Fiber Recycling of Decatur, IL, and the plastic moves on to the next of what should be many lives.

The Styrocycler has decreased Ashley’s landfill trash by more than 3000 cubic yards annually. Ashley recouped its investment in five months by saving $2600 per month in trash hauling fees, plus revenue from selling the densified polystyrene logs.

Larry Maletta, president of Styrocyclers, says it’s all about educating a company to see that recycling EPS can save and make money. He challenges potential clients to monitor the costs of collecting a month’s worth of their EPS waste and having it taken away. Payback, says Styrocyclers, is less than six months.

Ashley Furniture now sends as little as 20% of what it formerly sent to the landfill, and it has acquired a taste for being green. Paper no longer is pitched out, but instead is bundled for recycling. Replacing incandescent lights with LED bulbs changed a six-month replacement cycle to 16 years, and because the LED bulbs are

brighter, some 400 light fixtures were eliminated from the 35,000-ft2 store. Ashley’s sister company, Barney’s Furniture, also in Springfield, is following the same recycling program.

Besides supplying recycling systems, Styrocyclers also is a recycling processor that collects EPS logs in its local area. Its stated objective is to let people know that EPS is 100% recyclable and that it can be done repeatedly. If a company doesn’t have a local recycler that takes EPS, no problem. Styrocyclers is part of a National Mail Back Program that lets anyone mail their scrap to the company – some business for the Postal Service.

Seriously though, it dawns on more of us every day that being greener is a good thing. If recycling also brings in more of that other green – meaning money – it’s just that much more incentive to do good .

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

The P-Word: Guess Which Material Shines in New BMW Electric & Hybrid Cars?

Two new BMWs—a fully electric city car and a four-seat, hybrid sports car—unveiled in Frankfurt, Germany on July 29, 2011 are more than radically cool vehicles. They also mark another step forward for reinforced plastic composites in the automotive sector.

Body panels of BMW’s new i8 hybrid sports car (left) and i3 fully electric city car are carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic, a first for the German carmaker.

The BMW i3 city car and the BMW i8 hybrid sports sedan each have a lightweight aluminum chassis and a “reinforced carbon-fiber body” that the company says compensates for the weight of the batteries. I put those words in quotes because the press material distributed for the launch uses carbon, carbon fiber, and CFRP to describe the bodywork, seemingly saying the structure is carbon. Is it that they don’t want to say what the carbon fibers are reinforcing,  or what is holding them together in those body panels?

The “P” in CFRP stands for plastic, which I finally found deep in the ample press material, where CFRP is explained as carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic. The P-word might be used again, I don’t know, but there’s no way to hide the actual CFRP—all the body panels are made of it, and they look good—really good. And if BMW’s engineers are betting on them to perform, the odds are extremely good that they will.

Other carmakers agree.

Porsche and performance electric carmaker Tesla are working with composites, and Land Rover’s new Evoque uses plastic composites for lightweighting. Jaguar is said to be developing a car expected to be one of the fastest in the world, and the C-X75 will also be fuel-efficient thanks to carbon-composite construction and a hybrid power plant, among other things.

BMW i8 sports sedan uses plastics and natural materials

BMW uses natural materials in the new i8, but the interior shows the designers also are using plastics—strikingly.

The new BMW i8's doors could be plastic

The BMW i8’s transparent, wing-type doors could be quite heavy in glass, but shaped as they are, they well might be plastic. BMW wasn’t saying at the intro.


Speaking of power plants, hats off to a dedicated engineer who may have reached his goal of making a practical composite engine block. Florida-based Matti Holtzberg has made a dozen versions of a composite engine block using a six-piece mold with a removable core for the oil passages. He followed the design of Ford’s 2-liter Duratec engine block but his composite version is 20 pounds lighter, in an industry happy to shed an ounce or a few grams. Car and Driver has more details, including a chronology of Holtzberg’s development of composite engine components that starts in 1969 in Hackensack, NJ. And let’s hear it for engineers who don’t give up on plastics.

Monday, October 4th, 2010

When Autumn is in the Air, Plastics Keeps You Warm and Flu-Free

During a recent blog I wrote about how plastics helped keep us cool in the warm summer months.  Now with the temperature dropping, the days getting shorter, and the football season getting underway,  autumn is definitely in the air. And thanks to plastics, you can stay warm and healthy whether your are inside or out.

On the housing front, plastics help maximize energy efficiency and performance.  Plastic foam insulation, such as spray polyurethane foam, expands to insulate mid- to larger-size areas of your home, such as walls, attics and roofs. This insulation improves your home’s energy efficiency, and helps keep rooms at the desired temperature.  Polycarbonate can be used in windows since its low thermal conductivity can help to reduce heating and cooling costs.

And don’t forget plastic house wrap technology.  Plastic house wrap technology reduces the infiltration of outside air and helps to drastically reduce the energy required to heat the home.  Also if you are indoors you can always throw a log in the fireplace (or for the easy route you can put a Duraflame log in – just remember to remove its polyethylene packaging first). 

When you are outdoors in the fall, plastics play a key role in keeping you warm.  Personally, I’m partial to the fleece jackets made from post consumer recycled soda bottles.  Over the course of 13 years the company who developed this technology saved some 86 million soda bottles from the trash heap.  That’s enough oil to fill the 40-gallon gas tank of a Chevy Suburban 20,000 times.  And when the fall rains arrive in the D.C. area, I want to make sure my feet stay dry.  Thankfully I have many options including waterproof boots (that utilize waterproof expanded polytetrafluoroethylene membranes).  Another option is to put on your “Wellies” which are also waterproof and are most often made from rubber or polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

In order to stay healthy this fall, don’t forget to get your flu shot.  Some flu vaccines are being made in bio-process containers that are made of plastics. The plastic is converted from medical grade resins and polymer films, and created in multi-layer sizes that range from a deck of cards to a pick-up truck.  Their use is to grow cell cultures in controlled environments which then yield the proteins that are the basis for new drug therapies as well as the more common flu vaccines.  Also, the flu shot will likely be administered using plastic syringes made from polypropylene, vinyl or acrylic.  And if you happen to be around someone who is under the weather because they didn’t get his or her flu shot, don’t forget your hand sanitizer stored in a recyclable PET bottle.

 So whether you are inside or out, plastics can make these chilly days and nights of autumn a bit more tolerable and healthy too.

Friday, August 27th, 2010

President Obama Cites SPI Member “MGS Plastics” in Wisconsin Clean Energy Manufacturing Speech

President Obama mentioned SPI member company MGS Mfg. Group (Germantown, Wis.) in a speech given on August 16th after he toured the facilities of ZBB Energy Corporation, an MGS customer also based in Wisconsin. Obama shook hands with MGS Mfg. Group CEO Mark Sellers and used both companies as an example as he urged support for  U.S. manufacturing:

“Because of the steps we’ve taken to strengthen the economy, ZBB received a loan that’s helping to fund an expansion of your operations. Already, it’s allowed ZBB to retain nearly a dozen workers. And over time, the company expects to hire about 80 new workers. This is leading to new business for your suppliers, including MGS Plastics and other manufacturer here in Wisconsin.”

ZBB makes batteries used to store electricity from solar cells and wind turbines.  MGS Mfg. Group, an injection molder and moldmaker, provides complete development services to ZBB, including part and product design, tooling, molding, and other manufacturing solutions.