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.

Friday, August 5th, 2016

Sustainability in the Olympics: Striving to Set a Gold Standard

Rio de Janeiro, Sugarloaf Mountain by Sunset

Every four years, millions around the world turn their attention to the Olympic Games and watch athletes bike, flip, swim and run to represent their respective countries in the global competition. While spectators and athletes alike have their eyes set on bringing home the gold, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has set its own goal to minimize its environmental impact. Over the years, the Olympic Games have provided a global stage for brands and corporations to launch innovative, sustainable projects. Check out this timeline below.

1994

The IOC adopted “Environment” as a principle of Olympism. This new principle signified the start of a unified effort to make greener plans for the world’s largest sporting event.

2000

During the Sydney games, eco-friendly athletic attire had its Olympic debut when two runners crossed the finish line sporting Nike’s first recycled PET clothing.

2004

The Olympic Games returned “home” to Athens for the first time since 1896. Planners installed special disposal bins for plastic bottles to help manage the environmental pressure that comes with hosting an event attended by millions.

2008

In the Beijing games, Nike’s PET athletic line returned to the spotlight when track and field athletes from 17 different countries sported the uniforms. Coca-Cola joined the team and gave every Olympic athlete a t-shirt created with PET from five recycled water bottles. The shorts sported the slogan “I am from Earth” on the front to signify the unified effort to preserve the environment.

Sprinter getting ready to start the race

2012

Basketball teams from Brazil, China and USA competed for the top spot in Nike shorts and uniforms made from 100 percent recycled polyester, respectively, which saved an average of 22 bottles per uniform. In addition, American sprinters wore tracksuits that were each made of material from 13 recycled water bottles.

2016

At this year’s Rio de Janeiro Olympics, Brazil highlighted its host country pride by installing a sculpture of the Olympic rings in Copacabana. The installation, which is 3 meters tall and 6 meters wide, was created using 65 kilograms of recycled plastic.  In addition, the medals will be held around athletes’ necks by ribbons composed of recycled plastic bottles.

  Olympic gold medal

Friday, June 10th, 2016

The FLiP Files: Allison Lin

The FLiP Files is a blog series spotlighting young professionals that are active in SPI’s Future Leaders in Plastics (FLiP), a group for plastics professionals under the age of 40.  For our fourth entry, we spoke to FLiP member Allison Lin of The Coca-Cola Company.

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

I work at The Coca-Cola Company and am a director of closures and labels in the Global Sustainable Procurement group.

-Tell us a little about what your company does.

Coca-Cola is an over 22 billion-dollar beverage company with brands sold in every country in the world except two.

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

Very randomly. I have a Bachelor of Science in business and a Master of Business Administration, and was asked to take a role in global strategy development for plastics packaging at Procter & Gamble. I was hooked! I love how in packaging you have to balance product protection, shelf appeal, environmental impacts and much more. Plus, it’s amazing to see something you worked on in a store or in a consumer’s hand.

-Has anyone in the industry mentored you?  

No official mentorships, but I have a lot of role models. For instance Shell Huang, who pioneered bioPET’s introduction into mainstream packaging. I also have many heroes in the recycling industry, including people who have led the way to improve the perception of plastics packaging by working hard to improve recycling.

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

I work with the external supply base and innovation network to improve the overall value of our plastic packaging while meeting internal and consumer requirements.

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

We touch everything and we are always changing.

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

I see green-washing everywhere and try to help consumers and businesses make educated decisions on their plastic packaging choices.

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

Green-washing is adding to the negative perception of plastics. Also consumers’ lack of recycling, and the lack of availability of recycling infrastructure, hurts the industry; this is what leads to plastics in the oceans, on the streets and in land-fills.

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

We have the opportunity to positively impact perception in our industry and help to make consumers think differently about what matters. How do we make them think positively about plastics? How do we improve plastics’ carbon footprint? How do we leverage social media to improve recycling rates, explore new materials, and connect innovators/start-ups working on more sustainable plastics?

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

Coffee maker.

Monday, May 16th, 2016

Keeping America Beautiful with #SPIEarthDay

recyclingEach Earth Day, we celebrate preserving our planet and put in some extra effort to clean up our communities. Now more than ever, those within the plastics industry understand the commitment to sustainable practices and programs that will help to protect the world we live in for generations to come.

Here at SPI, we celebrated Earth Day for the entire month of April, coinciding with our first-ever Re|focus Summit & Expo which included prominent speakers from the plastics, recycling, food, beverage and consumer products industries who gathered to take their environmental goals from aspirational to operational. We also launched an Earth Day Pledge Challenge, where we encouraged members of the plastics industry to pledge to perform at least one act of green, or actions that reduce our environmental footprint.

Participants representing regions ranging from North America to the Middle East, and the diversity of plastics professionals, committed to implementing small, yet impactful acts of green in their daily lives Survey participants pledged acts of green which included committing to recycling more, participating in local clean-ups, reducing food waste and much more.

KAB logoRewarding our industry’s commitment, SPI agreed to randomly select an individual who completed the survey, and also shared their act of green commitments using the hashtag #SPIEarthDay, to donate $1,500 to a local Keep America Beautiful (KAB) affiliate of his or her choice. Sandeep Kulkarni, senior principal scientist at PepsiCo Global R&D, was randomly selected among the participants. Sandeep has will select a local KAB affiliate as his choice to receive SPI’s donation of $1,500.

Tuesday, May 10th, 2016

Brand Owners, Sustainability Leaders Launch Initiatives at First-Ever Re|focus Recycling Summit & Expo

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SPI’s first-ever Re|focus Recycling Summit & Expo wrapped up in Orlando last week. The two-day program featured executive-level forums, diverse educational sessions, dozens of cutting-edge vendors in the Expo Hall and a fair share of big announcements from some of the world’s most recognizable names in consumer products:

  • Keynote speaker Kelly Semrau, S.C. Johnson & Son Inc.’s senior vice president of corporate affairs, communication and sustainability, announced her company’s latest initiative to help build the infrastructure to eventually make Ziploc bags widely recyclable via curbside recycling programs.

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  • Walmart’s Ashley Hall noted that the world’s largest private employer will be using the How2Recycle label on its private label products.
  • Consumer goods giant Johnson & Johnson reiterated its commitment to creating sustainable products and educating consumers about the importance of recycling bathroom goods through the company’s Care to Recycle online toolkit, which shows families, what, how and where to recycle.

SPI also released its latest Plastics Market Watch report, Automotive Recycling: Devalued is now Revalued.

In addition to the announcements and educational sessions, Re|focus boasted a 10,000 net square foot exhibit hall, a core focus of the conference where attendees learned about various products that could help their companies achieve their sustainability goals. They could also see demonstrations of various types of recycling equipment, like this nifty shredder.

Shredder from Jacob Barron on Vimeo.

The Exhibit Hall also gave visitors the opportunity to learn more about how a plastic product can be recycled and converted into a completely different product for consumers. The Life Cycle Application center featured a number of different products that start out seemingly having little to no value, but, after reclamation and recycling, go on to become a valuable high-end feedstock for manufacturing. The Center was produced by SPI in partnership with Wellman.

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“We were so impressed by the turnout and candid conversation about working together collaboratively to reduce waste and promote recycling, with stakeholders and industry influencers representing various parts of the supply chain,” said Kim Holmes, senior director of recycling and diversion at SPI. “Re|focus had a successful inaugural summit and next year, we will return with an equally robust program to continue to drive conversation on how we all play a role in collectively committing to sustainable practices. We look forward to hosting in 2017.”