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Plastics in an Era of Big Ideas

Sustainability is one of the Big Ideas in plastics' evolution these days.

Sustainability and the circular economy are two of the overarching themes that influence technological development and business models in plastics today. (Image: Engel)

This blog post appears precisely on the 50th anniversary of my first day as an editor at Plastics Technology magazine. So, I’ve been thinking about what has changed in reporting on the plastics industry during that time. Plenty, one might say, but rather than getting lost in details, I’d like to focus on the “30,000-foot view.”

What stands out from that perspective is that much industry discussion, and articles in plastics publications, are framed nowadays by “Big Ideas,” like sustainability, circular economy, and what is various called digitalization, IIoT, Industry 4.0 or “smart factories.”

That’s a big change from decades past, which focused on more narrowly defined technological trends, sometimes specific to one sector of the industry, such as the advent of “linear low” polyethylenes, all-electric molding machines, 3D printing or, reaching farther back, robots, hot-runners, CAD/CAM, three-platen injection machines, quick mold change, barrier food packaging.

I remember an article in PT in the early 1980s on technology trends in machinery, titled, “M is for Microprocessor.” That counted as a Big Idea at the time, and it was. But there’s something different in the air today. If you attended big international plastics shows, like NPE or the K Show in Dusseldorf, some years ago, the show sponsors christened them with anodyne titles like “Progress with Plastics.” That’s very different from the upcoming K 2022 show in October, whose designated key themes are sustainability, circular economy and digitalization.

What’s different today is that these overarching themes touch every corner of the industry and every branch of technology—machinery, materials, additives, controls, etc. Virtually any article about plastics today can touch on one or more of these themes in some way.

It’s also obvious that today’s Big Themes are outward facing toward the society served by the plastics industry, not inward-facing concerns about productivity, efficiency, cost-effectiveness and labor savings. One might speculate whether that’s a sign of some sort of “maturing” of the industry—and of the plastics press, which has learned to lift its view above just nuts-and-bolts concerns.

Or is this more a reaction to unprecedented social and political pressures related to environmental pollution and climate change. In a flash, a plastics processor can have its livelihood legislated out of existence by a city, county, state, national or regional (EU) government body. That got the industry’s attention. And it’s reflected in what you read, in print and online, every day.

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