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.

Thursday, August 21st, 2014

The Green Fence and Why Every Recycler Needs to Pay Attention to China

China’s ravenous consumption of scrap plastics came to a not-quite-screeching, but still drastic halt near the end of 2012. At the time, however, you’d have been forgiven for dismissing the decline as a standard seasonal aberration.

For U.S. recyclers, a period of prosperity preceded China’s decision to begin enforcing laws restricting the importation of certain scrap plastic. “Everyone agrees that there was a time when there were no questions asked,” said Xavier A. Cronin, editor of a recycled plastics report at Petro-Chem Wire. “[They said] ‘as long as it’s scrap plastic, we’ll take it.’” This attitude made China a logical and lucrative market for recyclers looking to unload scrap plastic, and the industry did its best to make hay while the sun shined. Between 2010 and 2011 U.S. exports to China of “other” scrap plastic, a catch-all term that refers to a conglomerate of multiple resins in one box, polypropylene and other materials that fall into more than one category, regularly exceeded each of the four other types of plastics exports tracked by the U.S. Census Bureau, eventually hitting 526,898 tons in October 2012.

XCronin

Xavier Cronin

At that point, however, U.S. scrap plastic export volumes to China began a major dive that has yet to reverse itself, but in November 2012 it was easy to mistake the decline for the standard seasonal drop that recyclers had come to expect around the same time near the end of every year. “When we saw a drop off we thought ‘it’s November, of course there’s a drop off,’” said David Kaplan, formerly of Maine Plastics. “You don’t want to put anything in the water ahead of Chinese New Year,” he added, because millions of migrant Chinese workers go home for the New Year and many of China’s factories, recyclers included, go dark for 15 days, and what’s more is that many of the workers stay home, extending work delays for weeks. To account for this, U.S. exporters reduce their shipping volume ahead of the holiday. “The reason it didn’t gain attention at the end of 2012, ahead of the holiday season, export volumes always drop,” Kaplan said. “Nobody noticed it because they would’ve expected a decrease in exporting anyway.”

Declines in the months thereafter effectively killed any hopeful hypotheses that the November decline was just another seasonal reduction. That’s because October 2012’s reduction coincided with the institution of China’s “Green Fence,” a series of bureaucratic hurdles and newly-stringent regulations on what scrap plastic China would accept that has, and will continue, to complicate the business of exporting to China, a market that for many is too big to ignore, despite the regulations.

David Kaplan

David Kaplan

How the Green Fence came to be, however, offers an example of China’s political unpredictability that’s vital for every company in the recycling industry to understand. The Green Fence wasn’t written the night of Sept. 30 and instituted the following day. It was China’s decision to start enforcing  laws that it had previously chosen to ignore. “The green fence was the enforcement of laws that have been on the books for years,” Kaplan said. “The word enforcement is the key because [November 2012] was really when it started. It was the result    of a political move of the government to show that they were doing something about pollution issues in China. That is the general consensus; it’s not like the U.S. started shipping them anything different, they just enforced laws that had been on the books for years.”

“The data tells the story,” Cronin said. “The U.S. census shows that the scrap exports fell after the green fence enforcement bureaucracies went into effect. On the political side that’s a whole other conversation. Tomorrow they may decide to enforce a regulation from 1986.”

China’s sudden decision to start enforcing the laws that underpin the Green Fence suggests it’s anyone’s guess what China will choose to do or when they’ll choose to do it in the future. And what’s more is that China’s outsized influence on the recycling industry means that when it trains its regulatory eye on something, the whole world feels it. In many ways the Green Fence has both kept mixed scrap plastics out, and also fenced companies in from a revenue standpoint. Staying ahead of industry and regulatory trends, increasing the quality of exported material and exploring other alternative markets for scrap plastics to reduce China’s influence on your bottom line are all vital to growing business in today’s industry.

Join Cronin and Kaplan at their SPI Webinar on Sept. 4 at 2 p.m. EST to learn more about the Green Fence’s effect on the U.S. recycling industry and how your company can stay ahead of China’s unpredictable regulatory curve. Registration is free for SPI members.

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.