Thursday, August 21st, 2014

The Green Fence and Why Every Recycler Needs to Pay Attention to China

China’s ravenous consumption of scrap plastics came to a not-quite-screeching, but still drastic halt near the end of 2012. At the time, however, you’d have been forgiven for dismissing the decline as a standard seasonal aberration.

For U.S. recyclers, a period of prosperity preceded China’s decision to begin enforcing laws restricting the importation of certain scrap plastic. “Everyone agrees that there was a time when there were no questions asked,” said Xavier A. Cronin, editor of a recycled plastics report at Petro-Chem Wire. “[They said] ‘as long as it’s scrap plastic, we’ll take it.’” This attitude made China a logical and lucrative market for recyclers looking to unload scrap plastic, and the industry did its best to make hay while the sun shined. Between 2010 and 2011 U.S. exports to China of “other” scrap plastic, a catch-all term that refers to a conglomerate of multiple resins in one box, polypropylene and other materials that fall into more than one category, regularly exceeded each of the four other types of plastics exports tracked by the U.S. Census Bureau, eventually hitting 526,898 tons in October 2012.

XCronin

Xavier Cronin

At that point, however, U.S. scrap plastic export volumes to China began a major dive that has yet to reverse itself, but in November 2012 it was easy to mistake the decline for the standard seasonal drop that recyclers had come to expect around the same time near the end of every year. “When we saw a drop off we thought ‘it’s November, of course there’s a drop off,’” said David Kaplan, formerly of Maine Plastics. “You don’t want to put anything in the water ahead of Chinese New Year,” he added, because millions of migrant Chinese workers go home for the New Year and many of China’s factories, recyclers included, go dark for 15 days, and what’s more is that many of the workers stay home, extending work delays for weeks. To account for this, U.S. exporters reduce their shipping volume ahead of the holiday. “The reason it didn’t gain attention at the end of 2012, ahead of the holiday season, export volumes always drop,” Kaplan said. “Nobody noticed it because they would’ve expected a decrease in exporting anyway.”

Declines in the months thereafter effectively killed any hopeful hypotheses that the November decline was just another seasonal reduction. That’s because October 2012’s reduction coincided with the institution of China’s “Green Fence,” a series of bureaucratic hurdles and newly-stringent regulations on what scrap plastic China would accept that has, and will continue, to complicate the business of exporting to China, a market that for many is too big to ignore, despite the regulations.

David Kaplan

David Kaplan

How the Green Fence came to be, however, offers an example of China’s political unpredictability that’s vital for every company in the recycling industry to understand. The Green Fence wasn’t written the night of Sept. 30 and instituted the following day. It was China’s decision to start enforcing  laws that it had previously chosen to ignore. “The green fence was the enforcement of laws that have been on the books for years,” Kaplan said. “The word enforcement is the key because [November 2012] was really when it started. It was the result    of a political move of the government to show that they were doing something about pollution issues in China. That is the general consensus; it’s not like the U.S. started shipping them anything different, they just enforced laws that had been on the books for years.”

“The data tells the story,” Cronin said. “The U.S. census shows that the scrap exports fell after the green fence enforcement bureaucracies went into effect. On the political side that’s a whole other conversation. Tomorrow they may decide to enforce a regulation from 1986.”

China’s sudden decision to start enforcing the laws that underpin the Green Fence suggests it’s anyone’s guess what China will choose to do or when they’ll choose to do it in the future. And what’s more is that China’s outsized influence on the recycling industry means that when it trains its regulatory eye on something, the whole world feels it. In many ways the Green Fence has both kept mixed scrap plastics out, and also fenced companies in from a revenue standpoint. Staying ahead of industry and regulatory trends, increasing the quality of exported material and exploring other alternative markets for scrap plastics to reduce China’s influence on your bottom line are all vital to growing business in today’s industry.

Join Cronin and Kaplan at their SPI Webinar on Sept. 4 at 2 p.m. EST to learn more about the Green Fence’s effect on the U.S. recycling industry and how your company can stay ahead of China’s unpredictable regulatory curve. Registration is free for SPI members.

Monday, August 18th, 2014

North American Plastics Alliance Celebrates Three Years—and Welcomes ANIPAC

By William R. Carteaux, President and CEO, SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association; Carol Hochu, President and CEO, The Canadian Plastics Industry Association; and Steve Russell, Vice President, Plastics Division, The American Chemistry Council

Three years ago, the three leading plastics industry associations in the U.S. and Canada formally joined forces to create the North American Plastics Alliance (NAPA). Although we already were cooperating on many issues, we agreed that by memorializing a commitment to work together we could create efficiencies and be more effective as representatives of this large and diverse industry.

William R. Carteaux

William R. Carteaux, President and CEO, SPI

So what exactly has NAPA undertaken over these three years? Quite a bit.

Quick background… We set out in 2011 to coordinate our individual efforts on specific initiatives and programs in four areas:

  • Outreach – to promote better understanding of plastics’ benefits;
  • Advocacy – to encourage public policy that supports the growth of the plastics industry;
  • Energy recovery and recycling – to facilitate increased recycling and recovery of plastics’ stored energy content; and
  • Pellet containment – to extend wide-scale adoption of Operations Clean Sweep® throughout North America and beyond.

While observing our anniversary in July, we proudly added another member: ANIPAC, the leading  plastics association in Mexico. It was a gratifying  way to celebrate our Alliance, making it a truly North American entity. NAPA now encompasses the Plastics Division of the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the Canadian Plastics Industry Association (CPIA), SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association and Asociación Nacional de Industrias del Plástico, A.C. (ANIPAC).

At the start, we believed that leveraging our individual programs through enhanced cooperation among Alliance members would provide increased value to our associations and our member companies. And we were correct.

For example, on the outreach front, although each of our U.S. and Canadian associations has communications programs, we now routinely promote each other’s content through social media, greatly expanding the reach of our individual efforts.

carol hochu 2

Carol Hochu, President and CEO, CPIA

On the advocacy front, CPIA representatives joined with ACC and SPI in Washington, DC, for the plastics industry “Fly-in” in July, demonstrating the cross-border nature of the North American industry. Representatives from seven plastics associations, along with 111 member company participants, went to Capitol Hill to meet and discuss key issues with elected officials. In total, we met with 122 members of Congress, enhancing our industry’s profile in the Capitol and underscoring our contributions to jobs and sustainability.

The three U.S. and Canadian associations also are actively involved in energy recovery projects. In the City of Edmonton, Alberta, we’re working together to determine if adding more non-recycled plastics to a system that converts waste to gas improves efficiencies and results in better synthetic fuel products. (So far the answer appears to be yes.) The system is a full-scale “gasification” facility that is part of Edmonton’s efforts to divert 90 percent of its waste from landfills through recycling, composting, and waste-to-fuels technologies. We also are working together on plastics-to-oil projects to jumpstart technologies that convert the energy in non-recycled plastics into fuels.

Plastics recycling in the U.S. and Canada continues to show year-over-year growth, supported by myriad technical and communications programs to improve collection and scrap value sponsored by our associations. This fall, SPI will coordinate a meeting of North American plastics recycling association leaders to share best practices on plastics recycling and determine how to work more closely together in the future.

russell-2000x3000

Steve Russell, Vice President, Plastics Department, ACC

Efforts to improve and expand programs that help prevent resin pellets from entering waterways and the marine environment were particularly successful. In 2011 only the U.S. associations and their member companies were implementing Operation Clean Sweep. SPI created the Operation Clean Sweep initiative in 1992 to focus on proper containment of plastic pellets by resin producers, transporters, bulk terminal operators, and plastics processors.

Today, plastics associations in 12 additional countries, including Canada and Mexico, have launched Operation Clean Sweep. U.S. and Canadian associations have pledged to increase member company participation in Operation Clean Sweep this year by 30 percent and 20 percent, respectively. In addition, Plastics Europe is transitioning its member country associations  to the initiative. These efforts are part of the global plastics industry’s public commitment to tackle a global problem: plastic litter in the marine environment.

So what’s next?  There’s more to do in each of these areas, and through the alliance, we’re discovering new ways to be more efficient and more effective.  Our industry is large, diverse and growing every day.  And it’s clear that our needs are best served when we all work together.

The North American plastics industry is re-surging following a severe recession, with new opportunities brought on by cost-advantaged shale gas. NAPA pledges to help maximize that resurgence through cross-border cooperation and leveraged resources to enhance opportunities for the plastics industry and its products – in the U.S., Canada, and now Mexico.

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).

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.