Appliance manufacturers have earned a reputation for conservatism that would be the envy of Barry Goldwater. Sure, plastics have made sizable gains in North America's kitchens and laundry rooms. But many of the original equipment manufacturers that constitute the appliance industry were born metal benders. That can understandably slow efforts to popularize new applications for plastics.
Lately, however, refrigerator manufacturers have been positively innovative, thanks largely to the Super Efficient Refrigerator Program. Two dozen utility companies subsidized the competition to put energy-gluttonous household refrigerators on the equivalent of a crash diet. Saving energy is a commendable goal for durable products like appliances, and should have precedence over other factors, such as recyclability.
The utilities' contest has encouraged appliance OEMs to look at technologies that may have otherwise been shelved and forgotten, opening the door for opportunistic plastic companies.
One such technology that's getting a serious look is the use of vacuum panels instead of polyurethane insulating foams. In a story in Plastics News' Aug. 14 issue, Whirlpool officials provided details about the technology, and they confessed that the idea was one of the most expensive things they have tried in their efforts to improve energy efficiency.
Urethane foam suppliers are not sitting still. Mindful of the competition, they are working on several improved products, including their own version of the vacuum panel concept.
Isn't it amazing what a $30 million subsidy can accomplish? Let's hope the effort, with its focus on long-term energy savings and resulting fast-track for product innovation, continues.
Recycling an industry fixture
Rock-Tenn Co.'s $3 million investment in a plastics recycling operation offers additional proof - if any was required - that plastics recycling is here to stay.
While we acknowledge that the plastics industry has been free of heavy pressure from environmentalists for the past year, logic suggests that the battle - if both sides choose to continue to see their relationship as adversarial - is not over. Rather, it seems that the green movement is busy reacting to Congressional reform efforts, rather than out leading new crusades. That may change as early as next year.
In the meantime, plastics recycling continues to benefit from market forces that have driven up prices and that have improved the outlook from the abyss from which it struggled two years ago.
Rock-Tenn, a significant plastic sheet extruder and thermoformer, bought a recycling plant from Goodwill Industries of Central Indiana Inc. Rock-Tenn, already familiar with the paper recycling industry, took action to solidify supplies of recycled plastics - a hedge against recent shortages.
Plastics recycling is now entrenched in the industry. Processing firms like Johnson Controls Inc., Plastipak Packaging Inc., Constar International Inc., Sigma Plastics Group and now Rock-Tenn are experienced recyclers.
They did not get into the business as a result of outside pressure - they did so for business reasons. We can't think of a better justification.