Thursday, July 30th, 2015

Why Your Company Should Take a Fresh Look at Bioplastics

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recognized SPI’s Bioplastics Division (BPD) recently for its contributions to a new report detailing the state of the American bioeconomy. For bioplastics specifically, the report indicates that bioplastic bottles and packaging contributed 4,000 jobs and $410 million to the U.S. economy in 2013, and that investments in the sector yield outsized results elsewhere in the supply chain. For example, every dollar generated by the bioplastics sector generates an additional $3.64 elsewhere in the supply chain, while every job created within bioplastics results in another 3.25 jobs in adjacent sectors.

SPI_BPD_Logo_AltThe report is full of good news for the bioeconomy generally, and for bioplastics specifically, but it’s worth noting that $410 million accounts for about a tenth of a percent of the entire $380-billion U.S. plastics industry. There’s an enormous opportunity for companies that haven’t explored the sector recently to grow their business using these materials, if all they did was give bioplastics a second look. “Bioplastics is in need of an infusion, not so much of capital, but of market awareness,” said BPD Chairman Keith Edwards of BASF. “The investment has been made. There’s a lot of production capacity and there are materials available, they’re working technically and in most cases they’re working commercially. What we still lack is a lot of market understanding of the benefits and the uses of bioplastics.”

Edwards noted that misconceptions about availability, technical performance and commercial viability continue to haunt bioplastics, but that none of these factors are issues for the sector anymore. “In the past you could use these materials but you could only convert like a tenth of what you had, and now you can convert everything,” he noted. “There’s definitely still a perception that they’re either not available or technically, from a material property standpoint, they can’t do what you want them to do, but the third thing is that commercially people think they’re all too expensive which, in a lot of cases, they’re not, at least not to the same extent they used to be.”

The issue is that many companies probably already performed their own assessment on bioplastic materials within the last ten years, which, in the scheme of long-term investments in production changes, might as well have been yesterday. “A lot of companies did their big study five years ago and think ‘well I know everything I need to know about bioplastics, thank you,’” Edwards noted. “Trying to get them now to stop and do that assessment again, since they just did it, is hard because people are so busy, companies are busy and they’re chasing new business.”

But Edwards also notes that an investment in bioplastics doesn’t have to just be for show; it can also present a company with real strategic business advantages. “What we’re trying to convince the market of is ‘hey there’s new business to chase that no one else is chasing if you will employ some of these bioplastic technologies,’” he said, “’because now you can make claims that they can’t make, and you can do things that they can’t do.’”

These awareness challenges and business opportunities aren’t unique to bioplastics, and a corollary can even be found elsewhere in the broader plastics industry. “To me it’s the same as the recycling angle,” Edwards said. “What was true of recycled materials in the past is not necessarily true today, and the recycling industry is telling companies to come back and look, because these things are much better than they used to be. It’s the same thing with bioplastics.”

All of this is to suggest that innovation and growth in materials science, performance and commercial viability are happening so quickly now that a company that waits to reassess every half-decade or so could very well be missing out on a huge opportunity, especially as these factors pertain to bioplastics. These materials can do much more than the market is giving them credit for, and once companies begin to come to terms with this fact, the USDA can expect that the next time it measures the size and impact of the bioplastics industry, it’ll account for more than a tenth of the entire U.S. plastics industry. “If your company looked at bioplastics five years ago and the materials didn’t have the right heat resistance or they cost three times as much or they just couldn’t be used, you need to come back and look,” Edwards said. “What was true five years ago, isn’t true today.”

Thursday, July 16th, 2015

What You Missed at SPI’s International Symposium on Worldwide Regulation of Food Packaging

FDCPMC_IntlSymp_PierAside from a chance to network with 150+ experts from government, industry and scientific institutions and the largest Chinese delegation in conference history, the 12th Biennial International Symposium on Worldwide Regulation of Food Packaging featured several valuable program and after-hours highlights:

-An Update on U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Regulation of Food Contact Materials, from the FDA’s Office of Food Additive Safety (OFAS) Itself:  Filled with direct, technical glimpses into the operations of the FDA and previews of updates to the Redbook and Chemistry Guidance the food packaging industry can expect to see in the coming months and years, the Symposium-opening presentation from Allan Bailey, from OFAS’ Division of Food Contact Notifications, delivered the insights that brought attendees to the conference in the first place.

FDCPMC_IntlSymp_Staff-An In-Depth Look at Food Contact Regulations Around the Globe: With panels organized according to region and representatives from Brazil, Argentina, Canada, China, Japan, Australia/New Zealand, Thailand and several from the European Union delivering presentations, this year’s program was among the most geographically diverse and thorough in Symposium history. Government officials from the various regions took this opportunity to compare their respective regulatory schemes and hear industry perspectives, an important exercise to increase alignment of the world’s food packaging regulations and allow for more efficient global marketing of these products.

-A Dinner Cruise Through the Baltimore Harbor: All attendees, speakers and guests gathered together on the Raven for a networking event and dinner cruise as the sun set on the scenic Baltimore harbor. This was just one of the event’s networking opportunities though, between breaks, lunches, dinners and receptions, the event offered attendees countless chances to meet and greet colleagues new and old and to discuss regulatory challenges with government officials at the event.FDCPMC_IntlSymp_Boat

-A Special Program on Regulation Related to the Use of Recycled Plastics in Food Contact Applications: Manufacturers and brand owners are increasingly demanding that their suppliers find ways to make their products and materials more environmentally-friendly. This opens up a new regime of requirements that suppliers have to comply with in addition to the existing food contact regulations they already have to navigate every day. Led by presentations from Jeff Wooster, global sustainability leader, performance packaging at Dow Chemical, and Dr. Forrest Bayer, Bayer Consulting & UW Imaging LLC, and enhanced by additional discussions on emerging technologies designed to make using post-consumer recycled (PCR) materials easier, this panel was full of tips and insights that attendees could put to use immediately, to start working PCR into their products and meeting brand owner-driven sustainability requirements.

FDCPMC_IntlSymp_HarborView-So many more relevant sessions and opportunities to network with experts in the field!

The International Symposium will be back in 2017, but in the meantime, SPI’s Food, Drug and Cosmetic Packaging Materials Committee (FDCPMC) offers members these opportunities throughout the year. Click here to learn more about what this committee can offer your company.

Monday, June 22nd, 2015

E-Floater, Solar-Powered Electric Scooter That Weighs Less Than 12 Kilograms

By Cynthia ShahanFor Plastics Makes it Possible

BASF and Floatility recently introduced a lightweight, solar-powered, electric scooter called the e-floater. The electric scooter weighs less than 12 kilograms (27 pounds). Urban mobility could hardly be more sustainable… wait, could it be more sustainable?Scooter

The lightweight solar-powered scooter was created with more than 80 percent composite and plastic materials. BASF reports that the plastic materials enable design freedom and streamlined construction. Jointly developed by BASF and Floatility, it is supposed to give commuters the sensation of floating. Thus, its name (e-floater).

“This is a perfect example of how we cooperate with our partners to fully unfold the strengths of our innovative materials. The e-floater combines stability, durability and safety with an exciting, functional design,” said Andy Postlethwaite, Senior Vice President, Performance Materials Asia Pacific, BASF.

Versatility in the plastic materials from BASF adds to their substantial support and development capabilities. A BASF news release states:

Molding multiple parts to create complex shapes with plastic materials enables design freedom and the streamlined construction of the ‘e-floater’. Various grades of glass fiber reinforced  will be used for most of the e-floater’s structure: While the mineral-filled Ultramid® B3M6 is used for the parts where low warpage is crucial, the impact modified Ultramid® B3ZG8 combines toughness and stiffness in a way that is favorable for structural parts that have to resist crash-loads. The surface-improved Ultramid® B3G10 SI offers high surface quality to the parts despite its high fiber content. The reinforcement for front body and deck will be made with the new Ultracom™ composite materials to ensure stability.

Together with Ultralaminate™ B3WG13, a thermoplastic laminate and the adapted overmolding compound Ultramid® B3WG12 COM, BASF also offers its processing and designing support for the development of continuous fiber reinforced parts. Tires and handlebars made with BASF’s TPU Elastollan® will provide a good grip and smooth floating.

No more long walking gaps (not that those are bad) on your last leg home from the city center or the nearest public transport stop — just step on the scooter and “float” along.

“The cooperation with BASF enables us to develop a state-of-the-art short distance urban mobility solution to provide mobility-on-demand for the future. In this way, the e-floater will play a key role in making short journeys more convenient, quick, affordable and sustainable,” Oliver Risse, Founder and CEO of Floatility, said.

Amazingly, BASF celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2015. This was a company built to last. It is “rolling out a global co-creation program with partners on the topics of energy, food, and urban living.”

Some folks, especially in Europe, like to tuck a scooter in the back of their car, or simply their backpack if they prefer public transport. Why? Christopher DeMorro explains well in “Mini Debuts Electric Scooter Instead of Electric Car.” Here’s a piece of that: “In places like New York, Paris, and Beijing, where car bans are talked about with increasing frequency, the idea of combining scooters and bikes with cars seems to be catching on with European automakers. It wasn’t long ago that Smart debuted its own line of e-bikes and scooters to supplement its little city cars, and apparently the engineers at MINI thought it was a good enough idea to take for themselves.”

Wednesday, June 10th, 2015

Future of Plastics: The Material of Choice for Lightweight, Fuel-Efficient Automobiles

Third Largest Manufacturing Sector Poised to Meet Growing Demand for its Innovative Products

In our report “Market Watch: Plastics in the Fast Lane,” SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association discusses an anticipated increased use of plastics in automobiles as consumers and the government demand lighter vehicles that are more environmentally friendly and competitively priced. The plastics manufacturing industry is well-positioned to meet the potential demand of the automobile industry due to technological advances driving a more sophisticated, growing manufacturing sector.

The plastics industry, which is the third largest sector of U.S. manufacturing in dollar value of shipments, is in the vanguard of innovation and nowhere is this more conspicuous than in the automotive/transportation industry. While plastics make up about 50 percent of a modern automobile’s volume, they only account for about 10 percent of its weight.

The use of plastics in lightweighting vehicles has proven to be a cost-effective way to help boost vehicle mileage for decades, a trend not expected to change as the Obama Administration has raised the average fuel efficiency standards of new cars and trucks to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, according to the report.plasticsmarketwatch_auto_cover

Plastics can play a critical role in enabling automakers to meet the standards. And given the inherent advantages that plastics represent compared to other alternative materials, it is extremely likely that the transportation choices of the future will use more plastic, not less.

A glance inside any modern car or truck shows the interior compartment to be dominated by plastics – from instrument panels to interior trim to upholstery. Plastics are also used in lighting, bumper systems, fuel storage and delivery systems, ducts, fenders and exterior body panels, and more and more within engine compartments or other under-the-hood components.  Likewise, the composition of aircraft, passenger trains and urban metro vehicles continues to evolve toward greater dependence on plastics.

SPI notes that consumption of plastic goods grew at a record-breaking pace in 2014 (the latest government statistics available) to $298.3 billion, up 11.5 percent from $267.3 billion in 2013. As the automotive sector relies more on plastic to replace metal parts, the increased use of 3D printing will pave the way for more innovative applications of plastic.

Impact of Millennials

Other research in the report is based upon the work of Ken Gronbach, a marketing expert and author who studies demographic and cultural trends to predict buying habits. His research shows that the Millennial Generation (born in the early 1980s to early 2000s) has “no great love affair with the automobile and when asked what they would give up first, their car or their phone, their answer is almost always unanimous – their car.”

Like generations before, the Millennials don’t seem to resemble their predecessors in that they’re slow to get married, have children – and to obtain their driver’s licenses. Perhaps they’re late bloomers – due to the economy and their heavy college loans. Whatever the case, experts agree that sooner or later they’ll come around and buy vehicles. And, since the Millennials tend to be more environmentally conscious than previous generations, it is expected that they will demand lighter, more energy efficient vehicles.

The only downside to the increased demand is the shortage of skilled talent. “New manufacturing jobs are significantly different from the rote assembly line work of earlier generations. Manufacturing is built upon advanced technologies that demand more advanced skills from workers. Employees must be able to grasp engineering concepts, work with computers, make mathematical calculations and adapt to constant change. A manufacturing worker today must have the equivalent of two years of college, usually more, and the bar keeps rising.

Manufacturing is critical to a healthy economy. Our goal should be to dominate high end manufacturing that reflects emerging technologies that are frequently found in the more advanced plastic processors in the U.S.

The report attributes the workforce shortage to Baby Boomers retiring and the trend toward off-shoring that resulted in more young people seeking a four-year degree rather entering trade school. The skills gap afflicting all of manufacturing in the U.S. is equally if not more applicable to the plastics industry. Already, many individual companies are working with local schools to make young people aware of the exciting opportunities that abound in plastics and the basic skills and knowledge they need to take advantage of them.

It is incumbent upon people in the industry to take the initiative, study what other companies are doing, recognize the learning differences of the next generation, and become actively involved in promoting plastics manufacturing as a career choice – and as the product choice!

“Market Watch: Plastics in the Fast Lane” is the first in a series of unique reports being written by SPI. Later this year, staff will publish reports on healthcare, packaging, and housing and construction.

 

Monday, June 8th, 2015

A Simple Matter of Visibility: Brand Owners Amplify the Plastics Industry’s Voice in Congress

US CapitolYou wouldn’t think it’d be that difficult for a $380-billion industry to get its message across on Capitol Hill, but the voice of plastics doesn’t go unheard for a lack of size or influence (and certainly not for lack of trying). The issue is more that, to many lawmakers and American voters, the manufacture of plastic materials and products is opaque. Many consumers don’t even know where plastics come from. These materials have become so ubiquitous in modern American living that they’re considered as much a part of the landscape as the purple mountains majesty and amber waves of grain.

The fact that plastics are everywhere is key to the industry’s success and a testament to its ingenuity, but it’s a blessing and a curse. Plastics play a vital role in the economy, but to get the industry’s voice heard from a regulatory perspective, plastics has to educate policymakers and officials who, consciously or not, take the plastics industry for granted.

Brand owners play a key role in amplifying this message, and doing so yields its own benefits, according to SPI Brand Owner Council Chair Jay Olson, manager, materials engineering & technology for John Deere. Olson joined some of his suppliers and other members of the plastics industry supply chain on Capitol Hill recently to help advocate on behalf of plastics and clarify the vital connection between regulations upstream and how they ultimately affect brand owners and their customers.

“They don’t necessarily recognize the names of the manufacturers or the smaller companies, so having us participating with the discussions brings instant recognition,” Olson said. “The meetings I had, they were both with legislators in rural districts, so when I said John Deere they instantly knew that it’s part of the agriculture in their district, and they say the connection of the whole supply chain and how it’s important to the end customer, and voters and jobs.”

SPI Brand Owner Council Chair Jay Olson of John Deere, Inc. (R) SPI FLiP Vice Chair Annina Donaldson of Maxi-Blast, Inc. (L) discussing the plastics industry supply chain in a recent meeting with a congressional staffer.

SPI Brand Owner Council Chair Jay Olson of John Deere, Inc. (R) SPI FLiP Vice Chair Annina Donaldson of Maxi-Blast, Inc. (L) discussing the plastics industry supply chain in a recent meeting with a congressional staffer.

“Most of the jobs are created by the smaller companies anyway, but they don’t have the visibility that brands do,” he added. “They like the visible; they don’t always see the invisible.”

Olson used the example of material deselection as a regulatory volleyball that is aimed further down the supply chain but could have serious ramifications for companies like John Deere, depending on where it lands. “With material deselection and the regulation and restriction of certain chemicals that go into the materials, that increases our costs and it makes our sourcing decisions more complex,” he said. “Say on a tractor, the fuel tanks are all plastic for a number of reasons: cost, lightweight, flexible. If we have to go back to steel, it increases our costs. It increases quality problems in the factory, so the net value to the customer of deselecting a material that we’re dependent on affects the final customer.”

Any company in the plastics supply chain can try to illustrate this to lawmakers and regulators, and many of them do, and do so successfully, but having a brand owner’s name recognition goes a long way toward getting the message to stick.

This isn’t a charitable endeavor on the part of brand owners either: using the power of their brand name to aid their suppliers ultimately helps the brand owner’s business as much as it helps the supplier. “We can be successful if we can help our suppliers be successful,” Olson said. “With all of the regulatory issues that they have to deal with that we don’t necessarily have to deal with… today we just say, oh that’s a supply chain problem. That’s the process some brand owners prefer, but it’s really everybody’s problem.”