Thursday, May 19th, 2016

Plastic Packaging and the Ability to Feed People

FoodPackaging_StockPhotoOne of the simplest reasons packaging is poised to become a nearly $1 trillion industry in the next decade is because it contains, protects and preserves food and water. With as much food and water as we consume, the prevalence of food waste, and packaging’s role in eliminating it, was a prominent theme at this year’s Flexible Film & Bag Conference, which wrapped up in Houston, Texas last week.

The plastic films and flexible plastic packaging that covers meat, poultry, cheese, vegetables and other edible goods prolong the life of the products they contain by shielding them from bacteria, heat, cold and moisture, among other things. Attendees representing the companies that manufacture some of these items discussed ways to make their products more efficient and effective in combating lost and wasted food, a global issue that’s reached critical levels in environmental, economic and humanitarian terms.

Chopin at the 2016 Flexible Film & Bag Conference

Chopin at the 2016 Flexible Film & Bag Conference

“Food waste is an incredible problem,” said presenter Lamy Chopin of Dow Chemical. “If you consider the ripple effect of losing valuable food, the farmers that have invested in the land…any of that product that doesn’t get consumed has a significant greenhouse footprint.” The financial impact of food waste, according to Chopin, is up to $300 billion lost annually.

Environmentally, the impact of food waste is at least ten times larger than the environmental impact of packaging, and part of what makes that the case is plastic’s unique material and manufacturing properties. “One of the reasons why plastics are winning in the space of packaging in particular is they’re incredibly efficient,” Chopin noted. “They win out in terms of energy use and impact” when compared to other packaging materials, he added.

The epidemic of food waste and the ramifications it has for society are a huge priority for agencies, NGOs and governments around the globe. Plastic materials, particularly plastic films, will have an important role to play in combating these issues, and doing so as sustainably and efficiently as possible.

Monday, April 4th, 2016

Bioplastics 101

Bioplastics are found in our daily lives, and people don’t know it. They drink from biobased plastic bottles or drive in cars with seats and tubing that come from biobased sources. They go to parties and eat with compostable plates and forks. At the hospital, bioplastics are found in sutures and implants.

biobased benefitsThe histories of plastics and bioplastics have always been closely linked. The first man-made plastic – celluloid – was created to replace ivory in billiard balls, and went on to imitate ivory in many other applications, including combs and piano keys. Poly(lactic acid), one of the most common biodegradable bioplastics, was commercialized in the 1950s and used for medical applications until a breakthrough in manufacturing enabled it to become a large-scale commodity plastic in the mid-1990s.

Biobased and Biodegradable

Bioplastics are plastics that are 1) biobased, meaning they come from a renewable resource, 2) biodegradable, meaning they break down naturally, or 3) are both biobased and biodegradable. There are durable bioplastics made entirely from sugar cane, and some biodegradable plastics that are derived from nonrenewable resources.

Biobased means that a percentage of the carbon found in the plastic comes from a renewable resource. Resources used to make biobased bioplastics are called feedstocks, and include corn, sugar cane, castor beans, saw dust and even algae. Some have raised concerns that making plastics from plants means that this process reduces the amount of food available, but less than .01% of the land used for growing is used to make bioplastics. That’s like saying for every 12.5 ears of corn grown, one kernel is used to produce bioplastics.

golden wheat field and sunny dayBiodegradable means that bioplastics break down completely through a natural process within a short period of time into elements found in nature. Microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi, and larger creatures like earthworms, eat the plastics for food, breaking them down for energy and converting them into carbon dioxide, methane and water.

Biodegradation, however, can vary based on a lot of factors and is therefore not as helpful a term for consumers. It’s more important for them to know how to properly dispose of a biodegradable object. That is why we use terms such as “home compostable” or “industrially compostable” to help give consumers the information they need to properly dispose of certain bioplastics. Home and industrial composting differ because home systems use simple methods, such as a compost pile, with much greater variability and lower temperatures than industrial composting.

Bioplastics and Degradable Additives

Oftentimes there is confusion between bioplastics and plastics to which a degradable additive has been added. Both SPI and others have concerns about products that claim to be able to convert traditional durable plastics into biodegradable ones, and consumers should be wary of these products as well.

Bioplastics and Recycling

Bioplastics can be recyclable—even those that are biodegradable! Composting is a complement to recycling, and provides an alternate end-of-life option for plastics that cannot be recycled due to food waste contamination.

Friday, February 19th, 2016

Meet Walter Lincoln Hawkins: The African-American Pioneer Who Broke Racial and Scientific Barriers

Growing up in the early 20th century, Walter Lincoln Hawkins faced immeasurable obstacles as an African-American, orphaned at a young age, attempting to gain an education to pursue his passion of math and science. He persevered though, becoming a true pioneer in the world of chemical engineering and polymers, and paving the way for many in the plastics and telecommunications industries, regardless of the color of their skin.

Hawkins received a degree in chemical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1932, and went on to receive a master’s degree in chemistry from Howard University and a doctoral degree from McGill University. All of these were remarkable feats for the time, but his inspirational accomplishments didn’t end at graduation.

During World War II Hawkins helped develop synthetic substitutes for rubber, a vital wartime resource that was largely controlled by Axis powers. Among his numerous technical achievements, he designed a lab test to predict the durability of a plastic surface using spectroscopy. Hawkins also greatly extended the life span of plastic substances by helping to create new techniques for recycling and reusing plastics.

After the war, Hawkins went on to work at AT&T’s Bell Laboratories, becoming the first African-American scientist on staff. Some of his earliest and most notable work at Bell Labs involved, with the help of partner Victor Lanza, creating a polymer coating, now called “plastic cable sheath,” which would protect telephone cables. Previous wire coatings were costly, toxic, or too easily worn down by the weather. Hawkins’ polymer, which was made from plastic with a chemical additive composed of carbon and antioxidants, was cheaper, safer to use, and resistant to extreme weather conditions. This polymer saved billions of dollars, enabled the development of telephone service around the world, and is still in use today to protect fiber optic cables.CableSheathe

Throughout his career Hawkins made enormous contributions as a mentor and educator. He became the first chairman of the American Chemical Society’s Summer Educational Experience for the Economically Disadvantaged (SEED) program. Additionally, he served as a board member at several educational institutions. Having found his passion in science, and making the most of it, Hawkins passed on all that he learned, encouraging young people to pursue careers in science.

Hawkins was a true pioneer of the 20th century. His work led to tremendous breakthroughs in plastics, telecommunications, chemical engineering and beyond. But, perhaps even more importantly, he was a pioneer for young people who were disadvantaged and minorities, striking out a path for them to follow through education and on to a fulfilling career in science and chemistry.

Wednesday, January 27th, 2016

Snowzilla: No Match for Plastics

MiaHeadshotBy Mia Freis Quinn, SPI Vice President of Communications

I thought we’d be losing our minds by now, Day 6 of Snowzilla, the blizzard that dumped two feet of snow on the Washington, D.C. area.

But we’re not, somehow?  How is that?  My husband, our two young sons and I are (literally) digging the mountains of snow outside.  What went right during this storm for us?  The top 6 highlights:

1. Good Food.  We didn’t just stock up for this storm, we finally got it right and did it well.  Two of everything.  Brie.  But also salad.  Good wine.  Ingredients for our favorite recipes.  And, our Blue Apron box arrived two days before the storm.  We were hardly slapping together PB & J’s to get through; we were indulging in cod & potato brandade.

SnowzillaFood2. Sleds!  Sledding!  These plastic beauties delivered.  One neighborhood kid created a “luge” track for our block in his front yard, which my son must have gone down 30 times (while the adults enjoyed beverages around a fire pit).

SnowzillaSledAt four months in to my tenure at SPI, I find I’m way more aware of how much and how often plastic touches my life. And during this storm plastic was everywhere – all four of our shovels (especially prominent in the kids’ shovels), the sleds, our snowball makers, our boot trays, and other essential items, which brings me to…

3. Extra Insulation.  My biggest worry was that we’d lose power and freeze in our drafty house (we don’t have a fireplace).  So Friday morning I hit the hardware store and bought electric outlet sealers, window insulation and insulating tape.  All brought to you by…plastic.

4. Open-ended Play.  Santa brought my boys a plastic set of sticks and connectors that’s a fort-builder’s dream.  And every snow day needs a good fort.

SnowzillaFort

Other all-star entertainment items include our ever-reliable Magnatiles, Playmobil and Legos.  And keeping it uber-simple – the Costco bag of red solo cups – hours of building.  Again, all brought to you by…plastics.

SnowzillaCups

5. The Denver Broncos.  My hometown team, led by Peyton Manning, came through against the Patriots this weekend, and the victory was sweet! Fellow Broncos fans in our neighborhood shoveled themselves out, converged in our living room, and we all dined on Cincinnati Chili in homage to my husband’s fallen Bengals.

6. No Milk Panic.  Tip:  For all you who have declared during a storm “We’ve already run out of milk!  Now what!?” – buy several containers of organic milk next time.  The expiration dates are ridiculous!  You could stockpile it and be hunkered down for a few months.

Have there been some rough moments?  You bet. At one point this chili my neighbor left in my fridge fell out and crashed to the ground. I wish she’d used a plastic container.

SnowzillaChili

Wednesday, January 20th, 2016

The Growing Role of Plastics in Construction and Building

Go to just about any construction or job site around the world and you will find the building blocks architects have used for centuries: metals, wood, stone and masonry. But take a closer look at the new home being built in your neighborhood or the commercial building taking shape in your city, and a comparatively new building tool emerges: plastics and plastics derivatives.

Zero Energy Home

The building and construction sector is currently the second largest consumer of plastics (behind packaging) and it will increasingly use plastics and plastics derivatives given its wide functionality and distinct advantage of other traditional building materials in terms of flexibility, lower costs, energy and weathering efficiency and durability according to an SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association report issued at the 2016 International Builders’ Show in Las Vegas.

The report, “Plastics Market Watch: Building and Construction” is the fourth in a series published by SPI analyzing key factors impacting the plastic industry’s key end markets.

2015-03256-SPI-PMW-Construction-4.indd

The leading uses of plastics for residential and commercial construction include roofing, insulation, wall coverings, windows, piping, composite “lumber” planks and rails, flooring and structure wraps.

“The innovation within the plastics industry to improve and diversify products is matched by the building and construction sector’s pace to find and use new solutions to address fundamental issues like structural integrity, energy savings, recycling, and cost savings,” said William R. Carteaux, SPI President and CEO.

According to the report, while the building and construction sector has not regained its prerecession vigor, it is making steady progress with the promise of growth in the future. Globally, China, India, and the U.S. will be the primary drivers of construction activity as India is on pace to overtake Japan as the third largest construction market between 2017 and 2022.

Domestically, an estimated 1.3 million new housing units will be needed per year for the next decade to keep pace with population growth and existing housing unit characteristics, a dramatic increase of several hundred thousand more per year when compared to the Great Recession. “The buying behavior and economic security of Generation Y and Millennials will be the key over the next several years,” Carteaux explained. “Encouraging signals from recent surveys indicate that younger generations are inclined to buy homes.”

The dramatic inroads made by plastics on building and construction sites according to the SPI study are linked to plastics’ utility, cost, ease of installation, longevity and the “propensity of the plastics industry to constantly develop new products to supersede traditional building materials in many phases of the building process.”

“Plastics play an exciting and growing role in building and construction around the world, particularly given the drive to find ‘Smart’ designs with improved environmental and energy efficiencies,” Carteaux concluded. “Our industry needs to continue to collaborate with engineers and architects on building materials and find new innovations and advances. We have a strong, versatile, and ecologically responsible material—the plastics industry should expand its presence on construction sites in the years ahead.”

SPI will continue its Plastics Market Watch reports in 2016—“Automotive Recycling” will be published in the first quarter. Previous reports, including “Automotive & Transportation, “Healthcare & Medical Devices” and “Packaging” are available on the SPI website.