Annual conference gets underway with an appreciation of plastics and a challenge for change
By Pat Toensmeier
The latest edition of ANTEC, SPE’s Annual Technical Conference, began on May 5, with an address by association president Jaime Gómez touting the positive impact of plastics on life and recognizing the challenges the industry faces in many areas.
The conference, like last year’s, was virtual, owing to the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic
Resins, in all forms and applications, have had an outsized impact on life since the development of celluloid in the nineteenth century, Gómez remarked. “Our curiosity leads us into ingenuity and creativity to create wonderful things [with plastics] that make our lives better.” This is, he added, what plastics are all about.
Gómez, who is also president and CEO of Equitech International Corp., discussed the impact of plastics on markets, notably transportation, food packaging, agriculture, recreation, safety and personal protection equipment, and healthcare. As regards this last: “If you go to a hospital and ask not to be touched by a piece of plastic, there’d be no future for you,” he said. “All the devices have plastics or are made of plastics.”
The industry, however, faces challenges, one of which is public perception of plastics pollution. Another is the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gómez said that even though plastics are generally more efficient in manufacturing and more sustainable than most materials, the industry is under attack from activists and regulators. “Not because the material is bad, but because … human beings were not using it properly or disposing of it properly.
The pandemic, meantime, “the biggest event of our lifetimes,” forced much of the industry to adapt and respond. Plastics met the pandemic head-on with a rapid shift to the development and manufacturing of personal protective equipment, medical devices and other vital products, and will continue to play a major role in supplying the materials, innovation, manufacturing capacity and distribution of critical goods, he said.
The pandemic, additionally, accelerated ongoing industry changes. These include advances in materials, manufacturing technologies and applications. With the number of employees limited during the early stages of the pandemic, Gómez said, more companies are looking to accelerate automation—including lights-out manufacturing—a goal that entails broader development, and acceptance, of the controls and machines that make this possible.
Major markets, as well, seek to enhance products and product concepts to reflect awareness of the “green” demands coming from regulators and the public. While work continues to improve the collection and reuse of plastics, product designs will increasingly be done with recycling in mind, he said.
Going forward, Gómez concluded, we need to learn how to better use and reuse plastics to address concerns about disposal and pollution. He sees SPE playing an important part in this effort as a conduit and network for the knowledge and innovation necessary to meet sustainability demands. “With that in mind, I believe SPE has a bright future ahead.”