Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

At GPS, a Positive Outlook for Plastics but Risks Remain

As a manufacturing sector, plastics has outpaced its counterparts in terms of economic growth since the 1980s. The industry looks poised to continue this trend too, as a panel of economic and plastics experts testified this morning at the Global Plastics Summit (GPS) in Chicago, hosted jointly by IHS and SPI: the Plastics Industry Trade Association.

IMG_0190However, risks remain for the plastics industry, most notably the lower levels of productivity that are restraining the pace of economic growth. “That productivity issue represents some real risks,” said David Witte, senior vice president of IHS Chemical, tying the issue to a lack of education on the part of the public regarding the number and type of careers available in the plastics and manufacturing industries. “There’s some really, really good jobs out there that are more trade related and I think we have to start focusing on that shortfall.”

SPI CEO and President Bill Carteaux agreed, noting that the long period of exceptional growth in the plastics industry that has persisted since the 1980s because there were always enough workers to fill openings and keep production high. “That growth caught up with us,” he said. “The next generation of the workforce, that issue is not going to be solved in DC, it’s going to be solved on the local level, going back in to the high schools and educating the teachers and guidance counselors to steer these young people into these great careers.”

Carteaux’s point that local activism, education and regulatory support will be key to maintaining the plastics industry’s success was echoed by the rest of the panel. On a federal level, however, the picture is a bit grimmer, but the priority for plastics is educating officials and the public. “We as an industry broadly have the task to educate people on what we do and we’ve done a lousy job,” said Kurt Barrow, vice president of oil markets and downstream at IHS Energy. “What we’re up against is the NIMBY (not in my back yard) mentality and the environment al lobby that doesn’t understand unless it’s a solar cell on top of a car or bicycle. They’re the minority but they’re very vocal in the political realm, and our job is really to kind of get the government engaged.”

“The best thing the government can do is to stay the heck out of the way,” said panelist Nariman Behravesh, IHS chief economist, summarily. “Let me just leave it at that in the interest of time.”

Barrow warned that the sudden institution of strict regulations that affect plastics could conceivably restrict access, increase costs and, in a word, “throw growth off the rails.” SPI has called for regulatory reform as well, to create an environment in which plastics can not only maintain its current state and operate without costly, ill-advised rules that aren’t based on facts, but also grow even faster than its current rate.IMG_0173

Still, the labor shortage for manufacturers continues to be a growth-limiting restriction. “The regulation side is huge,” Carteaux said when asked for what the greatest threats to plastics were. “But I think the other big issue when you look at the investments in plastics is ‘are we going to have enough people to build it? Are we going to see the capacity to put those facilities up?’”

SPI in particular continues to work to eliminate these risks to the plastics industry with its aforementioned call for reform and its recently launched PlasticsU, a one-stop online warehouse of educational resources for companies seeking to train new and existing workers. Learn more about the manufacturing employment landscape here.

Wednesday, September 24th, 2014

USGBC Recognizes Plastics Industry Concerns that LEED v4 Promotes Product De-Selection – Conversation is a Good Thing, Results are Better

By Terry Peters, CAE, SPI Senior Director, Technical and Industry Affairs

There are moments in time where science and logic may prevail. The Aug. 27, 2014, press release – U.S. Green Building Council and American Chemistry Council to Work Together to Advance LEED – could be a harbinger of great things for LEED and our industry. The release announces “a new initiative designed to ensure the use of sustainable and environmentally protective products in building by applying the technical and science-based approaches to the LEED green building program. This new initiative acknowledges USGBC’s success in leading the transformation of the building environment and sets up a pathway to take advantage of the materials science expertise of ACC and its members.”   ACC logo

We applaud USGBC (U.S. Green Building Council) and ACC (American Chemistry Council) for crafting this agreement in principal.  As active members of the American High Performance Building Coalition (the collaborative of 41 organizations working with ACC), SPI is justifiably proud of this announcement and pleased that several years of intense work with Congress and federal agencies have encouraged USGBC to come to this place.

SPI has been a longtime member of USGBC and stands by previous statements supporting the higher goals of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). Over the years we’ve considered ourselves the loyal, if strident, opposition to the materials credits issue. Through the American High Performance Building Coalition (AHPBC) and the Flexible Vinyl Alliance, we have pressured for change.  At our invitation, Brendan Owens, LEED’s vice president, technical, has presented to our Fluoropolymer and Flexible Vinyl Division meetings about a half dozen times and heard our issues and concerns repeatedly stated.

This is beginning the discussions; nothing is yet agreed that addresses our long standing issues on material credits.  There are entrenched opinions and territories. But we are in a better place for this attempt to work together. Let us suspend our skepticism for a moment and look to the good that may come from this announcement.

LEED is the most used green building standards globally, as well as in the United States where more than 400 cities and communities, 39 states and 14 federal agencies currently require builders to meet LEED standards. That is why the plastics industry and other manufacturing associations are working diligently to get the USGBC to modify some portions of LEED, and also why they applaud some of the improvements in LEED v4.

For example, LEED v4 is pioneering the use of verified life cycle assessment data to determine the environmental impacts of products. As such, there will be a new credit when manufacturers provide Environmental Product Declarations or third-party verified life cycle assessments for their products. There also will be credits for buildings that exceed the established ASHRAE 90.1 standard for energy efficiency by 5 percent and 10 percent.

That is a perfect way of incentivizing builders to reach those levels because it allows you as a designer or builder to choose the material that works best. It doesn’t tell you to use fiberglass or foam, or what not to use. The energy chapter of LEED is an excellent chapter. It is performance-based and material-neutral.

Since it was formed two years ago, the AHPBC has consistently argued that USGBC has developed its LEED standards with a disregard for science, without involving industry and without using a consensus-based approach as is done by organizations such as the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).

LEED has helped make buildings more energy- and resource-efficient. But the latest version disparages and discriminates against vinyl and other materials. As pointed out by my colleagues at The Vinyl Institute, “USGBC’s own Technical and Scientific Advisory Committee examined the environmental impacts of PVC and other materials and concluded that credits to encourage avoidance of any material could lead to use of less-desirable products. Unfortunately, USGBC utterly ignored its own scientific conclusions in LEED v4.”

SPI agrees. This material discrimination should be eliminated. The best materials should be judged by application. We hope this overture of partnership, applying our real world material science to the aspirations of LEED, can work.

Thank you, USGBC.  Now, let’s get to work.

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.

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.

Friday, September 5th, 2014

The California Bag Ban and a Lesson on How Not to Legislate

By Lee Califf, Executive Director, American Progressive Bag Alliance (APBA)

The California State Senate approved SB 270 last week, sending a fee on paper bags and the nation’s first statewide ban of plastic bags to Governor Jerry Brown (D) for consideration. Several environmental groups have all but danced in the streets to celebrate the bill’s advance, despite the fact that:

  • plastic bags comprise less than a half of a percent of the U.S. municipal solid waste stream and banning them will have little, if any, effect on reducing litter;
  • plastic bag production generates 80 percent less waste and requires 70 percent less energy to manufacture than paper counterparts; and
  • plastic retail bags are 100 percent recyclable, reusable and made with American natural gas, an environmentally-friendlier alternative to other fossil fuels.

But each of these facts obscures a bigger point about the legislative process that brought SB 270 to Governor Brown’s desk: this so-called “environmental” legislation never had anything to do with the environment.

The Bag “Bargain”

In the process of making environmental policy choices, it often doesn’t take long for the discussion to veer away from the scientific and toward the emotional. Broad considerations for the planet’s future touch deep ideological nerves, so this makes sense, but it can often stifle conversations about actual science, as well as the real environmental ramifications of the policy proposal.apba logo_2012

Recognizing this, proponents of SB 270 decided never to entertain the very good environmentally-friendly reasons to vote against the bill, some of which are outlined above, but instead stood on the assumed truths that have similarly derailed so many other policy discussions. Furthermore, money spoke louder than environmental imperatives or the supposedly inherent evil of plastics, as supporters of the bill made grocers and unions an offer they couldn’t refuse: support SB 270 and we’ll direct the fees collected from the paper bags to you.

The Future

The bill’s lack of real environmental bona fides, along with its enactment via back-room deal, should lead anyone to scoff at the suggestion that SB 270’s success will somehow amount to a win, for any constituency, environmentally-focused or otherwise. For them it’s a symbolic victory, and while they’re celebrating the nation’s only statewide bag ban, all the baggage that comes with this deal isn’t commendable.

In many ways, the bill effectively scams consumers out of billions of dollars in bag fees. It’s a tax, of sorts, but typically taxes go back into state coffers to further benefit the public. In SB 270’s case, the fees collected from consumers won’t be used to pay for a road, a fire truck, a better school or even a marginal environmental benefit; they’ll be used to line the pockets of California grocers.

California has created a prime example of how not to legislate (fleecing consumers and damaging the state economy, all in the name of an imaginary environmental benefit), and other states might not be too eager to follow in California’s footsteps for that very reason, as well as some additional legal concerns. Most states probably won’t be willing to put this kind of fee on bags and give the money to grocery stores, and even if they were willing to do so there are some serious constitutionality questions about that. In effect it’s a tax that’s not going to the government. The private interest gets the money.

But on a more basic level, most states also wouldn’t, or shouldn’t, want to enact a tax on their citizens that essentially amounts to a form of corporate welfare for grocers, all while threatening the state’s economy. SB 270 puts 2,000 Californians that are employed at risk of being unemployed, all for the sake of a dirty deal between California grocers and union bosses. APBA stands with those workers, and with all Californians, as we continue to fight this dangerous and misguided piece of legislation.