Performance plastics: sustainable and life-improving
What comes to mind when you think of plastics? Many picture plastic water bottles and straws that are used once, then thrown away, or the plastic shopping bags available at almost every store. Plastics are all around us, but not all plastics are the same — and it’s important to distinguish between durable plastics and the vilified single-use variety. In fact, life without performance plastics would be much different.
Performance plastics are different from single-use plastics and are comprised of many different types of materials and used for an unlimited number of applications, but are all characterized by their strength, durability, and ubiquity. Performance plastics are engineering-grade materials that are used in countless applications that you most likely come into contact with every day.
Benefits of Performance Plastics
Are you reading this on a mobile device? You are holding performance plastics in your hand. Does your car get great gas mileage? That’s thanks to performance plastics, which can be as strong as steel but at a fraction of the weight. Have you gotten a great deal on an airline ticket? You can thank performance plastics, which are making airplanes lighter and more fuel efficient. Have you or a loved one recently had medical care of any kind? Performance plastics are used in a multitude of medical applications, from incubators that help premature babies have a better chance of becoming healthy children to knee or hip replacements that can give those babies’ grandparents more mobility.
Specific performance plastics are being developed with different additives suitable for unique applications. Antimicrobial plastics are used in medical applications to prevent infection. UV protection is added to plastics used in marine applications to ensure that the material doesn’t fade or crack in the sun or water. There’s even a performance plastic material that is bright blue and X-ray detectable for use in food processing applications, to ensure that in the unlikely event of a part breaking, it won’t reach a consumer.
Environmental Impact of Performance Plastics
Performance plastics have a great environmental story to tell. Since performance plastics applications are more lightweight than other materials (such as glass, metal, or wood) less fuel is required to transport them. Lifecycle analyses show that when the right performance plastics material is used in an application, it can have a longer lifespan than other materials. That’s less need to repair or replace, avoiding the carbon footprint that comes with such work.
Best of all, performance plastics are nearly always recyclable at the end of their useful life. Recyclers collect the materials, sort them, clean them, and then grind them up into pellets which can be made into new applications. In fact, many performance plastics manufacturers, distributors, and fabricators have a zero-waste policy in their operations: They collect all their scraps and shavings and make sure they get converted into a useful application. Many companies extend their scrap collection beyond their operations, accepting materials from their business partners and the surrounding community.
A Closer Look at the Industry
As previously mentioned, there is a great deal of variety in the performance plastics industry. If you’re looking for a material for an application, how would you know what is the best option? That’s one of the many benefits of working with a performance plastics distributor.
Distributors partner with manufacturers and are trained on the characteristics of, and applications for, the materials. Distributors will ask you a series of questions about the application, such as what kinds of temperatures it will be exposed to, whether it will be in direct sunlight, whether there are certifications or codes it must comply with, etc. They will take your responses and help you specify the right material for your application.
The International Association of Plastics Distribution (IAPD) was founded in 1956 by several plastics distributors in the Midwestern United States. Over the years, membership in the association has expanded to include every part of the supply chain, from the resin manufacturers who make the pellets to the manufacturers who make semi-finished shapes (such as sheet, rod, tube, pipe, valves, and fittings), to their distributor partners to recyclers. Distribution remains the core of the association and offerings such as IAPD University are designed to ensure that IAPD’s distributors are well educated on performance plastics.
Wayne Gono, IAPD’s 2019 president, is the Visionary and Chief Networking Officer of Regal Plastic Supply, Inc., headquartered in Irving, Texas. He and his wife, Patsy (president of the company), recently transitioned their CEO and CFO positions to their son and daughter, respectively, who are the third generation of this family business. When their son, Chad, became CEO, he said, “We’ve got to make plastics sexy.”
Since then, the business has been transformed and their headquarters is a vibrant, energized location that shows off the many ways in which performance plastics are optimal materials. For example, employees on the showroom floor have standing desks that Regal custom fabricated to each person’s height. These desks are on wheels, so employees can roll them to the sides of the space to make room for a team-building game of cornhole or other activity. According to Wayne, “Sometimes it feels like we’re a tech start-up, but we’re thrilled with the changes the kids have made to the business.”
Like many distributors, Regal Plastic Supply, Inc. has a fabrication department that can provide numerous value-added services to their customers’ orders, from cutting a sheet of material to the correct size to creating parts. By partnering with their customers, they are able to help ensure the success of the application that their materials are going into.
“I love plastics and everything about the industry, including IAPD,” Wayne shared. “There is so much variety to what we do that every day is exciting. Like many other IAPD members, we here at Regal never stop learning. We attend all of IAPD’s professional development events, such as the regional Women in Plastics educational workshop, the annual Leadership Development Conference and the biggest event of the year, the annual convention.
“I get especially pumped up when I talk to people who are looking for a job, whether they’re right out of school or they are changing careers. There are a wide range of positions available at IAPD member companies, from sales and marketing to CNC operator to forklift driver. They pay well and you get to work in this exciting, vibrant industry. In many cases, college degrees are not required and you get on-the-job training. How can you beat that as a way to provide for you and your family?”
Not just plastics … performance plastics
The next time you hear about what plastics are doing to the environment, chances are the connotation is going to be negative. Take a minute and think about all the benefits of performance plastics, and know that there’s a whole industry dedicated to helping you improve life with performance plastics. We invite you to explore it and the opportunities available to you.