Friday, September 19th, 2014

Curbside Collection for Capital Assets: CAMS Extends Zero-Waste Philosophy to Plastics Manufacturing Machinery and Equipment

The earliest forms of curbside recycling for consumers date back to the mid-1970s, and even today this system is the primary way that U.S. citizens participate in the effort to recycle and recover plastics. The plastics industry has set itself a goal of zero waste, and in many ways consumers are often thought of as the foot soldiers in this effort. While brand owners take much of the heat, and confusion often swirls around the technical details of what can be recycled and how, it often comes down to consumers recycling the plastics they use, and the industry processing them into new products, in a way that ideally closes the loop, gives plastic items second lives and saves high-quality usable material from the landfill.

2013-SPI-capital-asset-logo-cmyk-2SPI is committed to making it easier for consumers to recycle and reuse the plastics they encounter in their everyday lives, but has also enlisted the entire plastics industry in the pursuit of zero waste. In particular, SPI’s Recycling Committee has continually worked to educate the industry on zero-waste strategies and initiatives while also fostering expansion in the market for recycled material. Launched last year, RecyclePlastics365.org is an online plastics recycling marketplace that connects buyers and sellers of scrap plastics materials and recycling services “without the ‘needle in a haystack’ chore of sorting through the clutter of an Internet search,” said SPI Director of Recycling & Diversion Kim Holmes, adding that “SPI is committed to helping the industry divert all plastics from the landfill.”

Holmes’ statement is indicative of the supply chain-wide approach SPI has taken to reaching a 100 percent diversion rate for plastics. But while this effort has primarily focused on recovering plastic products and packaging, it’s only recently expanded to facilitate the recovery and reuse of plastics machinery and manufacturing equipment.

The plastic materials that have gone into some of the most life-changing, orbit-altering innovations of the last half a century weren’t plucked from trees. They were designed, processed and manufactured using increasingly state-of-the-art equipment on factory floors. They then went on to become the products that end up on suburban street corners once a week, in blue containers marked with the chasing arrow. While consumers can take their bottles out to the curb and their bags to the grocery store for recycling, a plant that produces or processes plastics doesn’t have those options when it comes to their old equipment. Firstly, they don’t make blue containers big enough, and moreover hauling used, underused or outdated machinery to the side of the road is a waste that would likely yield only fines and penalties.

In short, there’s never been a curbside pickup for capital equipment and machinery, but that’s what SPI, in partnership with Meadoworks, hopes to change with its recent launch of Capital Asset Management Services (CAMS). Through its online interface, similar to RecyclePlastics365.org, manufacturers can appraise their assets, dismantle and remove obsolete equipment and even find a new home for used equipment.

CAMS is both an example of the zero-waste philosophy in action and an investment in the plastics industry’s future. “The success of the entire plastics industry depends on the success of today’s manufacturing equipment,” said SPI President and CEO Bill Carteaux. “As companies continue to grow, so too must the technology they use.” Through CAMS, companies can upgrade their manufacturing equipment while also giving other companies in the market the opportunity to buy their used equipment that’s still worth using, and in the end, all parties benefit. “While participating in this program makes good business sense for today,” Carteaux said, “it also helps our competitiveness in the future.”

Columbus-recycling-binWhat makes CAMS similar to a curbside pickup service for manufacturers looking to recycle their machinery is the fact that in the same way that curbside pickup exists for the consumer’s convenience, CAMS exists for the manufacturer’s. “The key advantage of this program is that you don’t have to be an expert in asset management to benefit from expert knowledge,” said Meadoworks President Brian Walsh. “From the moment you decide to be a part of the marketplace, everything from valuation to marketing and eventually removal will be taken care of for you.”

Trading in and trading up when it comes to plastics manufacturing and processing equipment has often been a complicated, daunting process simply because there was no centralized marketplace. CAMS fills that void by connecting buyers and sellers around the world, while also providing the expertise and convenience necessary to benefit manufacturers of all sizes, supporting their growth and cementing their commitment to industrywide sustainability. At its simplest, CAMS presents an opportunity for manufacturers and processors to invest in the future of the plastics industry, which works best when it works together, inching closer and closer to zero.

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.

Thursday, September 11th, 2014

A Crazy, Upside-Down World: Brand Owners, the Plastics Supply Chain and History’s Most Informed, and Most Fickle, Consumers

In the broadest terms, the challenges facing brand owners hinge on the fact that today’s market operates in a world wherein information is more available than ever before, but in a way that continues to defy logic. Consumers now make decisions about the products they buy based on information that could be correct, exaggerated, patently false or a modern combination of all three, and rely more on emotional appeal than traditional market functions such as quality, price, value or convenience.

Additionally, consumer behavior now more easily shapes the general public’s perception of a product. A liter of water could be packaged in the most recyclable container that science and progress can create, but the consumer that buys it is still required to deposit it in another container and put it out on their curb on the correct day, or, in some cases, make the effort to actually travel to a local recycling facility, with the container in tow.bottles_shutterstock_12202219

But when a consumer doesn’t do that, and the water bottle lands in the gutter or in the ocean or in the landfill, other consumers don’t blame the person that didn’t recycle that bottle. They blame brand owners.

Demands for high-quality, lightweight, convenient, recyclable packaging essentially gave birth to the modern plastics economy, and resulted in amazing innovations in materials, design and manufacturing. But the consumer’s list of demands never shrinks, only getting longer and longer until arriving at a point like today’s market where brand owners are being pulled in too many different directions. Today, having the best product, in every sense of the term, isn’t enough anymore.

“It’s a crazy upside down world where you could have a great product and be a great environmental steward and very conscious of those environmental takeouts and those assessments and lightweight your packaging and all of those other things, even including using post-consumer recycled material (PCR),” observed Neil Gloger, CEO of Intergroup International. “But you can still lose because you’re not winning the social market-share, as it were.”

This social market-share, as Gloger put it, operates in a supply chain that starts and ends with consumers, but swallows up businesses and even governments on the way, and as it runs its course each party takes steps to place increasingly complicated and frequently counterintuitive demands on brand owners. “A mom in the middle of the Midwest can’t find a place to recycle her kids’ juice boxes,” Gloger offered as an example. “Now everybody who makes juice boxes hears from a retailer, ‘if you ship us another truck of that type of packaging, we will reject it because it doesn’t conform to our packaging standards’ and that was $300 million in business you were doing that just went down the drain.”

This phenomenon of consumers creating and shaping demand happens more quickly today than it has at any other point in history, and to understand why it’s such a heavy burden for the plastics industry to accommodate the new normal, it helps to look at how packaging developed over time. “You have the old normal which was you packaged stuff because it started as a public health issue, and then it became a marketing tool and then it became ease of logistics and creating a lower carbon footprint,” Gloger said. “And we’ve progressed from that to a point where the product that you’re buying is not environmentally responsible because it’s packaged.”

The plastics supply chain developed to account for all of those desires among consumers—public health, marketing, logistics, a lower carbon footprint—but now it must be more environmentally-focused than might’ve previously seemed possible, a shift that brand owners have led admirably, though that’s not how they’re often portrayed by the media, consumers and environmental groups.

brandowners-logo-final-4c“Over the past 5-8 years the brand owners have really taken a leadership role in being responsible stewards,” Gloger said. “The organizations will say ‘they haven’t done anything,’ or ‘too little, too late,’ or ‘they’re only doing this because if they do that they won’t have to do the real work,’” he noted, adding that in many ways this has always been the case. “Say you have a modeling company that’s lightweighting packaging,” he said. “Their motivation wasn’t really to save the environment; their motivation was they wanted to save 40 percent on shipping.”

The point, however, is that the plastics supply chain, driven by consumers and led by brand owners, can operate with a profit interest in a way that satisfies consumer needs. “These things can work in synergy,” Gloger said. “I think the biggest challenge is being able to touch humanities at the same level as the other side does, with their messaging that packaging, everything that the company does, is not coming from an evil empire.”

It used to be that perception was only reality in marketing, but now perception is reality in most corners of the business world. Anthropologists could chalk this up to the advent of social media or other cultural forces, but in the meantime, operating in a way that suits the idiosyncrasies of today’s market isn’t a choice; it’s an imperative. Brand owners need to not only be environmental stewards, but they have to be storytellers as well. “If you have a mom in Iowa saying don’t buy this because the packaging just goes to the landfill, you have to be able to have somebody at the same level understand that there’s another story here, or a bigger story or a better story,” Gloger said. “The story just has to get out. It’s not about companies. It’s about people.”2014_AMFC

Gloger will discuss these issues and provide brand owner-specific solutions at SPI’s upcoming Annual Meeting and Fall Conference in Chicago from Sept. 17-19. Join us! Attendees can register on-site at the conference hotel.

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

SPI Innovation in Bioplastics Award Competition Spotlights Key Plastics Sector

As an industry, plastics is poised for growth as America’s manufacturing renaissance continues. But one sector within plastics that’s key to this ongoing expansion is the bioplastics segment, which operates at the intersection of innovation, economic growth and sustainability.

“Bioplastics represent an increasingly larger part of today’s market, but the sector’s continued growth and development is pivotal to the entire plastics industry’s future, as consumers and policymakers alike work to reduce waste while creating thousands of green jobs,” said SPI President and CEO William R. Carteaux, announcing SPI’s third-annual Innovation in Bioplastics Award. “This is a segment of the industry that already has a track record for innovation, and we look forward to honoring another groundbreaking contribution with the 2015 award.”

SPI-bioplastics-cmyk-2-outlinesLed by SPI and the SPI Bioplastics Council, the competition officially opened Tuesday. Any corporation, partnership or other business entity worldwide can compete for the chance to become the next winner of a bioplastics award that acknowledges creativity and the heights of state-of-the-art innovation that, despite bioplastics’ comparative youth among plastics sectors, has come to define the industry.

Past winners include Avantium, which won the first Innovation in Bioplastics Award in 2013 for its development of polyethylene furanoate (PEF), a packaging material with superior barrier qualities that offered new opportunities to beverage makers. Teknor Apex won the 2014 Award for the development of Terraloy® PLA compounds that exhibit both high-impact and heat-resistant properties.

“Former winners of the Innovation in Bioplastics Award have continued to grow and make an impact on today’s plastics market with innovations that creatively simplify production processes and reduce greenhouse gases,” said Terry Peters, senior director of technical and industry affairs at SPI. “This contest honors the companies that keep plastics on the cutting edge by building the materials, products and processes of tomorrow.”

Entries will be judged on innovation, sustainability measures and marketplace impact and companies can submit multiple entries for different bioplastics materials, products or processes, provided that they complete and submit a separate entry form for each innovation they submit. The award application can be found on the SPI Bioplastics Council website and entries will be accepted until Nov. 14, 2014.

Learn more about the group at http://www.bioplasticscouncil.org/. Award program inquiries should be directed to Tania Farries, manager, regulatory and technical affairs at SPI, at tfarries@plasticsindustry.org.

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.