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Reaping the sustainable harvest

Plastics processor or perpetual motion machine?
The topic of sustainability came up often in mid-July during the final judging for the Federation of Reinforced Plastics’ awards, which will be presented next month during the group’s conference/trade show in Germany. Again I had the pleasure of participating as a judge, and again I came away impressed with the level of innovation presented by the 15 finalists, whittled down by the six judges from a field more than triple that size. The entries ran the gamut of the plastics industry, and included plenty of developments in both thermoplastics and thermoset plastics, but at least some aspect of sustainability featured prominently in many of the entries.

One finalist presented information on its technology for using wet grass to produce, among other things, filler for polyolefins. I write “among other things” because the company also markets home insulation derived from the grass, and uses heat released by the silage to dry the fibers used for insulation and plastics fillers. Captive injection molding is in the cards. Some electricity also is generated, helping the firm cover its energy bill. It wasn’t quite there, but the chart of the firm’s inputs and outputs almost had the look of a perpetual motion machine—”just add wet grass.”
Another company, a machine manufacturer, presented a straightforward machine development that, says the firm, allows for straightforward scrap/recy-clate-to-part recycling of practically any material or combination of plastics with no separation necessary. At one end of the line you can throw in sheet with a honeycomb PUR center and polypropylene outer layers, for example, and from the other end you can demold good parts (not the same ones, alas; that would fall under “too good to be true”). Toss in automotive instrument panels and watch as other panels are molded; less aesthetic, and not as highly engineered, certainly, but there is some potential there. Separation of mixed materials often is the most difficult part of plastics recycling; remove that aspect and suddenly everything can be easily reused. It still sounds too good to be true, so we’ll investigate that development further.
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On the topic of sustainability: MPW, along with our sister publication, Injection Molding Magazine, next month is organizing a conference on sustainability in plastics processing as part of our parent company’s three-and-a-half-day Sustainable Manufacturing conference program, held in conjunction with the Plastec USA/ Plastics Midwest trade show, National Manufacturing Week, and other collocated trade shows in Rosemont, IL. Speakers will include Scott Charon, new product development program manager at furniture manufacturer Herman Miller; Tom Duffey, president/CEO of molder Plastic Components Inc., who will speak on “How processors can incorporate sustainable tech into their plants”; and Bill Carteaux, president/CEO of the Society of the Plastics Industry, delivering the keynote speech. For more information on the conferences or trade shows, go to
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Meanwhile, plastics and energy price increases continue to make it difficult for many plastics processors to consider a topic as stirring as sustainability when their concerns remain more mundane, such as meeting payroll this month. Last month we reported that many processors are transitioning away from long-term contracts with their customers to ones struck quarterly or more often to replace changes in input costs. Last month Dow Europe, a plastics supplier, announced it would discontinue market index formula pricing in future contracts for all grades of PP, PE, PS, and styrenic copolymers in Europe, India, the Middle East, and Africa. Dow’s reasoning was the same as those many processors’: it needed the flexibility to reset its prices more frequently. It’s rather fantastic to observe old-school manufacturing industries transition to day trader-like buy-and-sell swiftness. What could the next step be? Maybe retailers adjusting prices upward during opening hours, the inverse of Kmart’s old Blue Light Specials: “Attention shoppers, prices for bread and eggs will rise 5% in 10 minutes.”
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