CHICAGO — A new industry working group is figuring out how to help plastic break through the glass ceiling.
The Plastics Glazing Working Group, under the umbrella of the American Chemistry Council's plastics division, is pulling together members to dive into U.S. and international building codes — and the building and construction market — to make a case for plastic windows.
The biggest barrier of busting into building codes is that “We're invisible,” said D'Lane Wisner, an ACC consultant and the lead staffer on the building and construction committee, who is spearheading the new group.
“As a material, we're the newbies. These codes have been built up around glass and other materials. There isn't even a definition of plastic in the building codes that we know of,” Wisner said.
The working group, introduced at the International Association of Plastics Distribution annual Convention and Plastics Expo in Chicago in November, already has Evonik Industries AG, Sabic Innovative Plastics, Bayer MaterialScience AG, CPI Daylighting Inc., Eastman Chemical Co., Lucite International Inc. and PolyOne Corp. on board.
ACC is providing staff and support in the coming year's budget, but the real work has to be done by the entire industry, Wisner said.
“It's a classic trade organization objective, to promote and defend plastics in the building and construction market,” he said. “But we're looking for interest not only from the people who make the plastic but the entire value chain because we realize all the way through to the end product is going to need to work together.”
The industry has been pushing for plastic glazing in automotive applications, and it has achieved some limited success with the addition of Sabic's polycarbonate windows showcased in the ultra-lightweight electric car concept developed by a BMW-led Visio.M Consortium. Another encouraging sign for the construction-focused effort is that North American flat-glass demand is growing as the sector starts to bounce back from the Great Recession.
On top of that, ACC and the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) have finally agreed to come to the table to talk about plastic and green building standards.
“It took two years of knocking on that door, and now that door is open,” Wisner said.
Making buildings easier to build, offering more natural light, being energy efficient and gathering up as many points as possible in a system like USGBC's LEED certification are all concerns, said Hector Cabrera, building and construction product marketing leader for Sabic IP, who is on board with the working group.
“USGBC is a big organization, but they're not the only one advocating for more sustainability. The International Code Council is progressing toward more stringent energy efficiency,” Cabrera said. “We believe that plastics can contribute in all of these fields, especially in the energy consumption. This is a great moment to look at this industry again and how we can make plastics possible for glazing applications.”
The first step is driving change in the model building codes and creating necessary product standards, said Tom Niziolek, architectural segment manager for Bayer MaterialScience.
“It's not about applications. It's about finding our way through the building codes,” Niziolek said.
The new group is trying to move fast — another timing factor is that building codes are on a three-year cycle of consideration for the International Code Council, with the first round of proposals due in January.
Once the codes are cracked, making room for plastic glazing will be an ongoing battle, Wisner believes, between evolving building codes and educating building professionals on plastic.
“What this is really about is growing the market together. It really needs to be done together, all the way from the resin producers to the end-market value chain because there's expertise there, there's sweat equity there, and there's a drive there,” he said.
The work will be worth it, Cabrera believes.
“What is the potential? If plastic glazing were just to get just 9 percent of this market, that's 90 billion square feet by 2016,” he said. “That's very compelling and worth our time and effort if we just take the initiative.”