Friday, August 7th, 2015

Women in Manufacturing: From Rosie the Riveter to Rose the CEO

By Jill Worth, Marketing and Communications Specialist, The Rodon Group

My grandmother, Celia Shulman worked in the same factory in Philadelphia for 40 years. She made transistors for radios, TV’s and other electronics. She painted stripes on the transistors and worked in the shipping department at night. She never complained about her job and was proud to be able to go to work every day and support her family as a single mother. It was an honorable career then, and for many women in manufacturing today, still is. Rosie

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Friday, July 31st, 2015

Getting Real about Marine Debris

Coral reef and the IslandAn environmental problem of the seriousness and enormity of marine debris can easily overwhelm companies and individuals into inaction. “I’m just a small manufacturer,” you can hear a business owner saying to themselves. “There’s very little I can do to make a difference.” It can be easy to slip into this mentality, but the truth is that the small steps we all take add up to a much bigger, positive effect. This is true about all large-scale issues, including marine debris.

Some of these steps can be taken within the gates of our manufacturing facilities, and some can be directed at consumer behavior. The former is often the simplest, but you might be wondering, “how can I impact the world outside of my facility?” To answer this question, SPI worked with other industry partners to create the proven and effective program known as Operation Clean Sweep (OCS), a program aimed at mitigating pellet loss from the manufacturing environment. Pellets in the ocean are a real and documented problem, but since the implementation of OCS, scientists have actually measured a decline in the presence of these pellets. No single company could have accomplished this. Rather, this decline is a perfect example of how everyone’s small efforts can add up to a larger solution. OCS is a first step that all plastics-handling companies can take in the right direction, before graduating to other collaborative efforts that companies and associations like SPI can take that enable the cause of eliminating marine debris to leap forward.OCS logo

Once companies take action within their facilities, they can focus on other additional opportunities to have an impact on marine debris issues. These come in two areas: supporting further recovery of plastics at end-of-life to help mitigate litter, and actually being part of beach cleanup efforts. “SPI is proud to have contributed” to the cause of fighting marine debris, said SPI President and CEO Bill Carteaux in a statement earlier this year that highlighted SPI’s efforts, all of which are directly supported by its membership. “But we also support the cause of eliminating marine debris by supporting recycling and educating the public about the value of plastic materials. SPI works tirelessly to create new markets for recycled plastic materials, and to spur innovation that makes recycling plastic products easier and more widespread for all consumers and for all types of plastics, from polystyrene foams to rigid packaging to plastic bags and everything in between.”

In short, an industry committing itself to the kind of environmental stewardship exemplified by OCS and the plastics industry’s other efforts to erase marine debris is all well and good, but failing to engage the consumer in these efforts only limits the possibilities for what can be achieved. The more strongly the industry can enlist consumers in its efforts, the faster the results will arrive, the more visible they’ll be and the longer they’ll last.

So, while companies shouldn’t be discouraged out of acting by the severity of marine debris, it’s safe to say that working to combat it can be a complex task. To demystify the problem and give companies the tools they need to join the fight against marine debris, SPI will host a webinar August 6 at 1 p.m. EST titled “Marine Debris: Where We Stand, and What We Can Do.” As the title suggests, the program will feature both the latest figures on marine debris as well as the numerous opportunities the industry currently has to get involved in international coastal cleanup efforts. It will also give companies that might not think OCS could apply to them (i.e. recyclers) a background on how they can start implementing these important rules to prevent the loss of plastic materials at all facilities, not just plastics manufacturing or processing plants.FriendlyTurtle_Web

“SPI will continue to work and collaborate with other industry organizations to facilitate programs that increase recycling and eliminate the loss of plastic pellets and materials that end up in our oceans and waterways,” Carteaux said. “By working together, we can drive the meaningful recovery of plastics products that will stop marine debris at its source.” We hope you’ll join us and your peers to tackle one of our generation’s greatest environmental challenges while moving your industry, and your company forward at the same time.

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 a percent 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.”

Monday, July 27th, 2015

Zero Energy Homes – Made Possible by Plastics

Imagine a home that produces its own electricity. At times it may use some energy from the power grid, and at times it may give some back. But in the end, the give and take balance out.

We actually do not have to imagine, because these homes already exist. And plastics play a fundamental role.

Zero Energy Homes

They are known as “zero energy” homes. Zero energy does not mean the homes use no energy for heating, cooling, and electricity. It simply means that the homes’ own energy supply is equal to the homes’ energy use. As noted, the homes at times may use energy from the community power grid and at other times may provide energy to the grid, but over time the home is net energy neutral, which is why they sometimes are called “net zero-energy.”Zero Energy Home

Homes that actually produce more energy than they consume over time are called “positive energy” or “net positive energy” homes.

These homes now are a reality, through a combination of passive energy sources such as solar and geothermal and a proper design with modern plastic foam insulation and other materials.

Wasted Energy

Nearly 40 percent of our nation’s energy is consumed in our homes and buildings, and heating and cooling account for most of the energy use in a typical U.S. home, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Unfortunately, much of it is wasted due to outdated building practices. In addition, EIA estimates that six percent of energy is lost in transmission over power lines. Wasted energy not only hurts our environment, it hits our wallets, as well.

Zero energy homes can contribute significantly to our nation’s efforts to improve energy efficiency in two ways—by providing passive electricity on site and eliminating long distance transmission power loss.

NIST

How do we know this really works? The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) built a “Net Zero Energy Residential Test Facility” near Washington, DC, in 2013. On its July 1 one-year anniversary, NIST announced that the home produced more energy than it used, enough to “power an electric car for about 1,440 miles.”

NIST found that “instead of paying almost $4,400 for electricity—the estimated average annual bill for a comparable modern home in Maryland—the virtual family of four residing in the all-electric test house actually earned a credit by exporting the surplus energy to the local utility.”

The house achieved this “despite five months of below-average temperatures and twice the normal amount of snowfall.”

What Role Do Plastics Play?

Insulation obviously is key to reducing energy loss in any home, zero energy or not. While each building is unique, zero energy homes typically rely on modern plastic foam insulation systems under and around the foundation, in the walls, and in the roofing, which can dramatically decrease the amount of energy needed to heat and cool a home. Many of these insulation products do not simply increase R-value—they also help reduce leaks and air loss to seal the building envelope.

And these are not novel or unique insulation systems—they all are available to homebuilders.

For example:

  • Sheets of polystyrene foam under and around the home’s foundation create a barrier and insulate the floors and walls. Foundations are poured directly onto the insulation sheets, which also are attached to below-grade foundation walls.
  • Insulated concrete forms—usually expanded polystyrene forms that stack and are filled with concrete and rebar to create walls—provide excellent insulating properties and create a very solid building.
  • Structural insulated panels typically sandwich large sheets of expanded polystyrene foam between oriented strand board (OSB), creating large wall systems with few seams, greater R-value, and improved strength.
  • Polyiso or polyurethane foam installed under the roof system instead of in the attic floor helps seal the building against leaks and increase the R-value of the roofing system. The NIST home used this method to achieve an R-value of 75 in its roofing system, which is about twice the typical R-value. In addition, since the attic is tempered space, ductwork doesn’t shed its cool or hot air in un-tempered space.
  • The NIST building used six-inch instead of four inch-studs to increase the space for insulation between studs, plus a plastic air moisture barrier and four inches of polyiso on the exterior, which virtually eliminates thermal bridging (the transfer of heat between the interior and exterior caused by non-insulating materials).
  • While not used in all the above insulation systems, plastic house wrap significantly reduces the infiltration of outside air, helping to reduce the energy required to heat or cool the home.
  • Finally, plastic sealants (caulks, mastics, foams, tape) are applied to any remaining gaps that may exist between floors, walls, roofs, and windows, as well as around ductwork joints.

NIST estimates that its home is almost 70 percent more efficient than the average area home.

“The most important difference between this home and a Maryland code-compliant home is the improvement in the thermal envelope—the insulation and air barrier,” says NIST mechanical engineer Mark Davis. “By nearly eliminating the unintended air infiltration and doubling the insulation level in the walls and roof, the heating and cooling load was decreased dramatically.”

To actually reach zero energy, many other energy saving products made with plastics are used, such as plastic piping for radiant heat and efficient water delivery, insulated window frames clad in plastics, highly energy efficient refrigerators, and even plastic roofing tiles that incorporate solar cells in the tiles themselves instead of having to install both tiles and panels.PMIP

How much does plastic insulation and other building products contribute to energy efficiency of zero energy homes—or typical suburban homes? A one-year study by Franklin Associates found that the use of plastic building and construction materials saved 467.2 trillion Btu of energy over alternative construction materials. That’s enough energy saved over the course of a year to meet the average annual energy needs of 4.6 million U.S. households.

Future

While zero energy homes are still outside the norm, numerous events and trends are driving efforts to dramatically improve energy efficiency, from concerns over climate change impacts to substantial upgrades in building codes.

To encourage greater energy efficiency, NIST plans “to develop tests and measurements that will help to improve the energy efficiency of the nation’s housing stock and support the development and adoption of cost-effective, net-zero energy designs and technologies, construction methods and building codes.”

And according to NIST, some “states are taking steps toward encouraging or even requiring construction of net-zero energy homes in the future. For example, California will require that, as of 2020, all newly constructed homes must be net-zero energy ready.”

That is going to require help from a lot of plastics.

Previously published in Plastics Engineering and posted with permission from the Society of Plastics Engineers.

Friday, July 17th, 2015

Proper Use of Plastics in the Microwave is Safe

By Kyra Mumbauer, SPI Senior Director of Global Regulatory Affairs

In recent weeks, mainstream media outlets have carried articles suggesting that microwaving plastics could be dangerous. As the leading association in plastics manufacturing, it is incumbent upon us to help clarify information about using plastic food containers or wraps in microwaves.

 Kyra Mumbauer

Kyra Mumbauer

The key point is that plastic wraps and containers are not dangerous to use in the microwave if they are used in accordance with the directions on their packaging or the container itself.  The public should be sure to use any plastics for their intended purpose and in accordance with directions. Many plastic wraps, packages and containers are specially designed to withstand microwave temperatures. Be sure yours is one of them by checking the item or its label.

Recent articles have also directed the public to check the Resin Identification Codes on plastic containers and to avoid microwaving containers labeled 3, 6 and 7.  Consumers must be aware that these codes have no relationship to the safety of a plastic food contact product for its intended use. Food containers and packaging materials are manufactured using many different plastics, including Codes 1-7, and all must comply with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) extensive regulations designed to protect public health and the environment.

Before entering the market for consumer use, the components of products that come in contact with food must be submitted for review by the FDA. The FDA has assigned an entire office, the Division of Food Contact Notifications, which employs approximately 35 chemists, toxicologists, and other scientific staff, for the purpose of evaluating the safety and environmental impact of chemicals used to produce packaging and other products that may contact food.

microwavePlastics and additives are permitted only after the FDA reviews the scientific data and finds that they are safe for their intended use, such as in microwavable plastic trays.  FDA’s review includes an assessment of the potential for substances to migrate into the food under the specific condition(s) of use, in this case at high temperatures present in microwave cooking applications.  FDA then calculates the estimated dietary exposure to any substances that could migrate, reviews all toxicological data that is available on the substances that may migrate and determines whether that data supports the safety of the potential exposure.  The higher the potential exposure to a material, the more toxicity data is needed to support the safety of that exposure.  FDA’s comprehensive regulatory scheme ensures the safety of food contact products, including microwavable plastics, allowing FDA to focus its resources on other issues, such as foodborne illness.