Tuesday, August 30th, 2016

The FLiP Files: Annina Donaldson

The FLiP Files: Annina Donaldson, President, Florida Operations at Maxi-Blast, Inc. and FLiP Vice Chair

Annina-Where do you work and what’s your title?

Maxi-Blast, Inc., president of Florida Operations.

-Tell us a little about what your company does.

Maxi-Blast is a full-service supplier of plastic blast media [plastic materials that are blasted at industrial equipment and other surfaces in order to clean them] and blast cabinets [large containers in which this type of cleaning is conducted]. We manufacture non-abrasive plastic blast media used for various applications, including, but not limited to, plastics and rubber deflashing, mold & die cleaning, paint stripping, cryogenic deflashing and extrusion screw cleaning. We are the alternative to chemical and by-hand cleaning. The cabinets we manufacture are tailored to specific applications, such as our patented mobile-screw cleaning cabinet for large feed screws. We carry a stock of spare parts and provide services such as setup or troubleshooting for our cabinets.

-How did you find yourself working in the plastics industry?

I grew up in the plastics industry. My father started the business in 1979. Growing up, my siblings and I would visit him and ask to shred paper in the office or sweep the shop floor. In high school, I would do random projects filling sample bags or separating plastic. After graduate school and testing out other careers, my father asked me to interview for a full-time job working alongside him. That was 10 years ago.

-Has anyone in the industry mentored you?

Two people actually: Gail Barker and my father, Robert Donaldson. All my life, I have watched my father striving to maintain his work ethic and grow his knowledge of the industry. Working alongside him is a daily mentorship program. Gail, however, was the first person to really take me under her wing. Gail was president of Maxi-Blast when I started in January 2006, and there were even fewer women in the industry then than there are today. Every day she gave me some piece of advice about leadership, being a woman in a male-dominated industry or how to manage working with family. Gail passed away in December 2006 but the year she mentored me was, and is still, the most invaluable of my career.

-Describe in one sentence what you do on an average day.

Whatever is involved with achieving the goal of making sure the factory is running smoothly; we are making the best possible pellet on the market and handling the day-to-day operations of a business.

-What do you like most about working in the plastics industry?

That I learn something new about our industry every time I go to a trade show or go on a plant tour. I am in awe of how many different ways plastics are made or used. The industry is ever changing and reinventing itself, and I look forward to seeing what will be done next.

-What’s one thing about your personal life that you feel has been changed by having a career in plastics?

Choosing to work in the plastics industry meant working with family, thus blurring the line between personal and work life. Without the plastics industry, I wouldn’t have the chance to share a passion for a business that means so much to everyone in the family. Dinner conversations would be much different, and I wouldn’t get to see as much of my family as I do now.

-What are the major challenges you think are facing the plastics industry today? How do you think the industry can overcome them?

Getting the younger generations excited about a career in plastics manufacturing, and the misconceptions about plastics. As long as companies keep showcasing what they do and opening their doors, there is a greater chance that a millennial will be there and say, “Wow, this is for me!”

As for the misconceptions, it’s necessary to share facts with those who are not in the industry, and making sure government officials are educated before they vote on laws effecting plastics companies. Definitely a “the more you know” solution.

-Why do you think someone from your generation should consider a career in plastics?

It’s important to want to go to work everyday. A career in plastics can be lifelong and meaningful. This industry is exciting, full of potential and growing. There is also a sense of pride when you work for a company that manufactures a tangible product that you just can’t get in other industries.

-What’s one plastic product you couldn’t live without?

My American Express Card.

Friday, August 19th, 2016

A New Study May Make Conversations about Plastics Easier

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Steve Russell, vice president of the American Chemistry Council’s Plastics Division

A guest post by Steve Russell, vice president of the American Chemistry Council’s Plastics Division.

Has this happened to you? You’re at a dinner party or family gathering or neighborhood get-together. Someone asks you what you do. A conversation about plastics ensues. And you struggle to find a really simple way to explain plastics’ many benefits and contributions to sustainability.

I’m guessing we’ve all been there.  And the answer just got easier to explain.

New study

A new study by the environmental consulting firm Trucost uses “natural capital accounting” methods that measure and value environmental impacts, such as consumption of water and emissions to air, land, and water. The authors describe it as the largest natural capital cost study ever conducted for the plastics manufacturing sector.

The results?  “Plastics and Sustainability: A Valuation of Environmental Benefits, Costs, and Opportunities for Continuous Improvement,” finds that the environmental cost of using plastics in consumer goods and packaging is nearly four times less than if plastics were replaced with alternative materials.

Trucost found that replacing plastics with alternatives would increase environmental costs associated with consumer goods from $139 billion to $533 billion annually.

Why is that? Predominantly because strong, lightweight plastics help us do more with less material, which provides environmental benefits throughout the lifecycle of plastic products and packaging. While the environmental costs of alternative materials can be slightly lower per ton of production, they are greater in aggregate due to the much larger quantities of material needed to fulfill the same purposes as plastics.

Think about it. Every day, strong, lightweight plastics allow us to ship more product with less packaging, enable our vehicles to travel further on a gallon of gas, and extend the shelf-life of healthful foods and beverages. And all of these things help reduce energy use, carbon emissions, and waste.

Why do this study?

This new study follows an earlier report called “Valuing Plastics (2014)” that Trucost conducted for the United Nation’s Environment Programme (UNEP). “Valuing Plastics” was Trucost’s first examination of environmental cost of using plastics. While clearly an important study, it begged the key question: compared to what? After all, consumer goods need to be made out of something.

So ACC’s Plastics Division commissioned Trucost to compare the environmental costs of using plastics to alternative materials, as well as to identify opportunities to help plastics makers lower the environmental costs of using plastics. The expanded study also broadened the scope of the earlier work to include use and transportation, thus providing a more complete picture of the full life cycle of products and packaging.

We see “Plastics and Sustainability” as a contribution to the burgeoning and vital global discussion on sustainability. Like any single study, it doesn’t “prove” that plastics are always better for the environment than alternatives. But it is an important study based on a rigorous and transparent methodology. And it provides a fuller picture of the environmental benefits of using plastics.

“Plastics and Sustainability” provides the plastics value chain with important information on plastics and sustainability so that we all can make better decisions. The entire plastics value chain is engaged in discussions with policymakers, brand owners, retailers, recyclers – and consumers – about how to be good corporate citizens and contribute to sustainability. A better understanding of the life cycle of materials will better inform these discussions and should lead all of us to more sustainable materials management decisions. This study’s findings also will help inform us how to further reduce the environmental cost of plastics.

In other words, making smart choices about what we produce and how we produce it will benefit people and the planet.

New perspective

So in light of this new study, next time you or I struggle for the right words, perhaps let’s try this:

“Did you know that replacing plastics with alternatives would actually increase environmental costs by nearly four times?”

Let me know how it goes.

You can find more information about the Trucost study and some interesting visualizations of the findings here.

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.