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.

Monday, April 4th, 2016

DOL Releases Final Persuader Rule

On March 23, the Department of Labor (DOL) released the final “persuader rule” which changes longstanding requirements on how employers can seek advice regarding union organizing activities and when employers and others have to disclose information to DOL. The previous rule required disclosure only from employers and others who had direct contact with employees regarding union organizing campaigns.

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The new rule will now require persuader disclosure by third-party lawyers and labor consultants educating employers on union organizing rights and collective bargaining, even if they have no direct contact with employees. Management attorneys argue that the new rule will threaten client confidentiality and hamper the ability of employers to seek advice to respond to unionization activities. The Obama Administration says that the rule will provide clarity to employees and the public without limiting what employers and consultants can say, and while informing workers of who is saying what. Exempt from disclosure is the advice from consultants and lawyers making “recommendations regarding a decision or course of conduct.” Trade associations are only exempted if they do not conduct seminars or provide materials to member companies.

The rule takes effect on April 25, 2016, and is applicable for arrangements and agreements made after July 1. The Coalition for a Democratic Workplace (CDW), of which SPI is a member, is reviewing the final rule and will challenge it in court if warranted. 

Monday, March 21st, 2016

Five Regulatory Issues to Watch in 2016

This year is proving to be packed with regulatory activity at the federal level for two big reasons: first, with Congress focused on elections, federal agencies can take actions with less scrutiny than they might’ve faced in any other year, and second, this is President Obama’s last opportunity to make lasting policy changes. Stateside, California will remain active from a regulatory standpoint this year as well, because…well…it’s California.

While SPI addresses countless issues stemming from the federal agencies’ semi-annual agendas, federal courts and the states, here is a sampling of issues that impact the plastics industry.

Foreign Supplier Verification Programs (FSVP)

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued its final FSVP rule in November 2015 under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). FSVP governs food that is imported to the United States and ensures that those importing food are doing so in a manner that is as safe as possible for the American public. SPI worked with FDA to ensure that the rule would include an explicit exemption for food contact substances, but unfortunately the final rule did not provide any such exemption. By default, this means the rule encompasses food packaging. SPI members could be subject to onerous and unnecessary requirements to conduct food safety hazard assessments and audits of their foreign suppliers if they manufacture food contact substances. SPI is currently working with FDA on the issue and hopes to see some clarifying action by the agency in 2016.

Improve Tracking of Workplace Injuries and Illnesses

The pending Improve Tracking of Workplace Injuries and Illnesses rule is one of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) highest priorities. A final rule is under review at the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB), Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). SPI submitted comments on the November 2013 proposal, which would require the electronic transmission (annual or quarterly, depending on the number of employees) of information that is currently recorded, but not reported, to OSHA or its designee. Significant concerns include maintaining employee confidentiality, particularly with the posting of information on a public website, as well as employer and agency resource burdens.

Combustible Dust Rule

OSHA does not have a comprehensive standard to address combustible dust, though it is now in the definition of “hazardous chemical” in the Hazard Communication Standard (HCS). Combustible dust incidents have resulted in fires and explosions, and rulemaking activity was first published in the Unified Agenda in spring 2009. The next step is seeking small business input, required under the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act (SBREFA), but there are continuous delays. SPI will monitor OSHA’s progress. SPI is also watching combustible dust activity under the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS) and comment on National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards 654 and 652. SPI is currently developing comments for the revision of NPFA 652, due June 29.

Risk Management Plan Rule

EPA began the rulemaking process for revisions to the Risk Management Plan (RMP) Rule with a Request for Information (RFI) in 2014. RMP requires facilities that meet threshold quantity requirements of specific regulated substances to develop plans in case there is an accidental release. After the SBREFA process, EPA released a proposed rule in February 2016. SPI will file comments. OSHA is now convening a SBREFA panel for potential revisions to the Process Safety Management of Highly Hazardous Chemicals (PSM) standard, for which OSHA issued an RFI in December 2013. SPI will continue monitoring.

California’s 75% Initiative – Manufacturers’ Challenge 

In 2011 California passed legislation that sets a non-mandatory target of a 75% reduction of solid waste to landfill through reduction, recycling, or composting by 2020. The “75% Initiative,” as it’s referred to, is being implemented by CalRecycle, the state agency that handles recycling and recovery efforts. The Manufacturers’ Challenge is a program that is intended to target packaging materials and sets a goal of a 50% reduction of packaging to landfills by 2020. SPI has submitted comments and met with CalRecycle, and also participated in the Manufacturers’ Challenge meeting, which took place on January 5, 2016. More updates on the initiative and CalRecycle’s outreach efforts to manufacturers could occur in 2016, and SPI will keep the plastics industry informed as they arise.

Monday, March 7th, 2016

The FLiP Files: FLiP Chairman Michael Stark

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 this first entry, we spoke to FLiP Chairman Michael Stark, of Wittmann Battenfeld.

Michael Stark, SPI FLiP Chairman

Michael Stark, SPI FLiP Chairman

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

Divisional Manager, Material Handling and Auxiliaries for Wittmann Battenfeld, Inc.

-Tell us a little about what your company does.

The Wittmann Battenfeld Group is one of the largest manufacturers of injection molding machines, robots, automation systems and auxiliaries for the plastics industry worldwide.

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

It all started with a good paying internship at Ball Corporation when I was in college. They injection molded preforms and stretch blow-molded Pepsi bottles. I was not familiar with the plastics industry prior. I remember getting goosebumps standing in front of some large injection molding machines and I’ve been obsessed with this industry ever since.

-Has anyone in the industry mentored you?

Naturally it’s been my boss, our U.S. President, David Preusse, and our global CEO Michael Wittmann.

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

One sentence would look like this: “There is no average day.” And that’s what I love most about what I do. There is such a range of things I’m involved in. It keeps me fresh and motivated, all the time. I handle large contract negotiations and staff management of 30-plus people all the way down to getting my hands dirty on top of machinery at a customer’s facility, and everything in between.FLiP_logo-2

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

Hands down it’s the people. This industry has some of the most exciting, diverse, humble and hardworking individuals I’ve ever met. I left the industry for a short clip and ended up coming back for more. Second to that, it’s tangible. I can put my hands on what I’ve done. 

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

There hasn’t been much of a deep-rooted change in my personal life, I feel; I’ve always been the same Type-A kind of guy. However I will say that I’m a plastics advocate with friends and family as a result. I’m always checking labels on products to see if my company was involved in the equipment or the project.  I’m always preaching about proper recycling at home and wherever I go. I’m always the one picking plastic plates out of the trash at a family BBQ and putting them in the recycling, explaining why and what to look for. Heaven forbid a generalist friend or family member gets me going on plastics being bad!

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

Really big picture is the image of the industry. Forget about increased fuel economy by lightweighting cars with plastics, or saving some lives with a new plastic implantable or device. All of that good is easily outweighed the minute someone Instagrams a picture of plastic litter. I often wonder if they picked the litter up after they took the picture? This image has trickled down into the younger labor force and has aided in creating the skills gap we face in plastics, and all manufacturing in the US. The only way around it is for the industry to collectively stand up and advocate and educate the public, and promote the industry. It helps everyone in the chain, from the molding shop looking to hire some fresh talent, all the way to the consumer of a plastic product. Initiatives like FLiP (Future Leaders in Plastics) are a great start.

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

Michael Stark, addressing student visitors to Wittmann Battenfeld on Manufacturing Day 2015.

Michael Stark, addressing student visitors to Wittmann Battenfeld on Manufacturing Day 2015.

It’s exciting, action packed, fast moving, challenging and rewarding. If you want to be a part of something that touches everyone’s lives, and be on a team of great people, then get involved! If you roll out of bed aspiring to have a dry 8-5 staring at a computer monitor, not making much of an impact, then this might not be for you.

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

Tough question! I couldn’t type my response without this plastic keyboard… I just got a phone call from a customer on my plastic phone, crunched some numbers for him on my plastic calculator, and that’s just the last five minutes of my life. On a more personal level, I couldn’t live without my daughter, who wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for plastics being involved in her 8 days of NICU care when she was born.

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.