The first-ever virtual Antec kicked off March 30 with Brian Landes, president of the Society of Plastics Engineers, welcoming online attendees while standing in front of his fireplace.
After that unusual start, it moved on to the CEOs of Dow Inc. and Berry Global Group Inc. outlining how plastics plays a major role in fighting COVID-19 and sustainability.
"I don't know of a better time or a more important time to be in our industry than the one that we've got in front of us right now," said Jim Fitterling, who joined Dow in 1984. "I've never in my career seen a time when our industry was more necessary and indispensable in the fight than we have on display today.
"The companies that we represent in the industry and that we do business with are collectively, and without exception, the one strong critical pillar of the economy, and for once, at least in the recent history, being in the chemicals or plastics business is not a bad name."
Fitterling said the global coronavirus crisis is causing people to begin to realize that plastics are sustainable.
"Health and hygiene and sanitation are one of the often-overlooked benefits of using plastic materials," he said. "We supply the world with products that the world needs to live, not only to live and to live well. And our contributions, especially in this environment, are gaining new appreciation because of our ability to create and deliver the products that the world desperately needs."
SPE scrambled to put together Antec 2020: The Virtual Edition, which will run Mondays through Wednesdays of each week until May 5.
Day One featured keynotes by Fitterling and Berry CEO Tom Salmon — two heavyweight speakers from the petrochemicals and packaging sectors. Fitterling was in his home office. Salmon spoke from his workplace office.
Landes, who said he felt like Mr. Rogers, speaking from his home, said the 23,000-member SPE brings together the entire plastics industry.
"We are so passionate about the value of networking, that we were not willing to cancel the Antec experience. Instead, we transform the conference to a virtual offering that brings many more students and professionals in touch with this community," said Landes, a polymer scientist who is technology leader at Dow.
Fitterling called moving ahead with Antec in these times "a great example of the kind of perseverance, we're all going to need in the months and weeks ahead as we tackle this virus and this rolling pandemic that's going through the world."
The Dow and Berry executives, both of whose companies were founding members of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, were originally scheduled to speak at the traditional Antec 2020, in San Antonio, March 29 through April 1. But COVID-19 forced SPE to cancel the conference and put together the virtual version in just two weeks.
The keynote speeches and a question-and-answer period went smoothly. SPE CEO Patrick Farrey said about 600 people listened to the keynoters live, via YouTube and Zoom video conferencing. Recordings of the Virtual Antec sessions are available online.
Salmon said the coronavirus has also highlighted the importance of packaging to keep food fresh, spurring agility and flexibility and fostering new ways of communicating between the supply chain customers and from companies to their employees.
"It has been inspiring to see how that's actually operated," he said, adding "these are incredible exciting times."
Fitterling said: "This is our opportunity to deliver the innovations that meet some of the world's greatest challenges."
Both executives said SPE members are important people to drive the industry forward.
"You all have been an incredible component of that value. And it's really demonstrating that there's no other substrate on the planet with the diverse attributes that plastic has, to serve as many industries as it does to bring real value, and to change people's lives," Salmon said.
It's a difficult management challenge.
"Literally I have to keep our people safe going to the plants producing the products that people need for survival and for their health. In order to fulfill our mission, it's really caused us I think how that applies to our industry to a very large extent and again reinforces why this is such a dynamic time to be inside the plastics world," Salmon said.