Ohio's plastics industry - the third-largest in the nation based on 2006 exports worth $26 billion - is trying to cope with changes associated with sustainability along with the rest of the nation.
Sustainability was the main theme of the Ohio Polymer Summit, held June 3 in Columbus. PolymerOhio Inc. organized the event, which drew 220 and included breakout sessions on industrywide biomaterials and recycling trends, as well as state business development initiatives.
``The world of polymers is changing,'' PolymerOhio President and Chief Executive Officer Wayne Early said in opening remarks. ``Our goal is to help [processors] learn about some of those changes so [they] might take advantage of them, rather than be a victim to them.''
In a biomaterials session, officials from several prominent companies and research centers said the biggest challenge facing the industry is the low volume of bioresins being produced.
``There's been a lot of excitement about bio-based materials. But in many ... cases, there really hasn't been anything to back up the excitement, particularly in terms in having the volumes of materials you can use, whether for development or testing,'' said Stephen Myers, director of the Ohio BioProducts Innovation Center at Ohio State University in Columbus.
Higher prices for bioresins and lack of knowledge about them also limit their use, said Jim Gray, director of business development at Avon Lake, Ohio-based compounder PolyOne Corp.
``We're finding that we're currently relegated to niche-type applications that can afford or are willing to pay the premium, but we also see that we'll expand and will break into larger applications,'' he said.
PolyOne has developed color and performance additives for polylactic acid, he said.
Development of biofibers for resin filler and structural support will help broaden bioplastics' appeal, said Prabhat Krishnaswamy, president of Natural Fiber Composite Corp. in Mount Vernon, Ohio. His company in 2006 was awarded a $1.5 million Innovation Ohio Loan, over seven years, to aid its efforts.
Krishnaswamy acknowledged the most popular plants used for biofibers - flax, hemp and jute - are grown in tropical climates. But there are opportunities in biofibers in the U.S.
``There is increasing drive toward using locally available materials everywhere in the world,'' Krishnaswamy said. So, if technology can be developed here that uses local materials, that technology can be adapted and exported, to be used with local materials elsewhere, he said.
Closer to home, Dublin, Ohio-based Ashland Inc. is using organic feedstocks provided by DuPont Tate & Lyle Bio Products in some of its Envirez-brand renewable-resource resins. Ashland recently announced it also will use Susterra-brand propanediol, which is made from corn sugar at a DuPont plant in Loudon, Tenn.
David Jones, Ashland's bioproducts director, said Envirez uses have grown beyond tractor body panels to general-purpose infusion resins for tubs and showers and boat hulls.
``For every 38,000-pound batch we make, we're saving approximately 10 barrels of crude oil,'' Jones said.
About 50 people attended a summit session on recycling trends in automotive and packaging markets.
Scott Melton, president of American Commodities Inc., a Flint, Mich.-based recycler of plastic auto body parts, said original equipment manufacturers have accepted the concept of sustainability and know enough about recycling now that they can provide specs.
In addition, slow sales and downsizing in the industry have made OEMs rethink their positions. Five years ago, many were unwilling to use recycled materials without realizing massive cost savings. Now they're submitting specs for parts containing recycled content when the run only saves them a few thousand dollars, Melton said.
``With the price of plastics going up, recycling is going to have a greater future for that, because there's more value in it to take out of it later on,'' he said.
Cost drives the PET recycling business at Bowling Green, Ohio-based Phoenix Technologies International LLC, which recently introduced a recycled PET pellet that can be processed like powder and used in bottles, sheet and food-grade applications.
Phoenix President and CEO Bob Deardurff said his plant produces 70 million pounds per year of recycled PET at 10 percent less cost than virgin resin. He said a challenge for PET recycling will be additional handling time and expense caused by changes in the packaging industry. ``The transition is going to smaller packages and lighter and lighter weights.''
Tom Brady, president of Phoenix's parent, Plastics Technologies Inc. of Holland, Ohio, said end users of PET bottles can make a difference nationally.
``If they were smart enough to support deposit legislation - where 80 percent of the stuff comes back - so that there was an oversupply of PET, [Deardurff] could make that material probably 15 percent less than virgin and sell it back. So the economics of recycling and collecting, ... mechanically, is pretty good. It's a supply and demand question.''