friday-funny:-strange-and-amazing-household-experiments

Take a look at some very bizzarre experiments, from odd magnetic properties (printer toner?) and a tree that grows actual chicken eggs.

You have to see this to believe it. Some of these household experiments seem logical. Others seem to have come from another planet.

Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 19 years, 17 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cyber security. For 10 years, he was owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.

DesignCon 2020 25th anniversary Logo

January 28-30: North America’s largest chip, board, and systems event, DesignCon, returns to Silicon Valley for its 25th year! The premier educational conference and technology exhibition, this three-day event brings together the brightest minds across the high-speed communications and semiconductor industries, who are looking to engineer the technology of tomorrow. DesignCon is your rocket to the future. Ready to come aboard? Register to attend!

what-happened-to-intel’s-early-facial-recognition-platform?

Facial recognition technology is one of the big trends at CES 2020. That’s not surprising since facial recognition market is expected to grow from USD 5.07 billion in 2019 to USD 10.19 billion by 2025, according to Mordor Intelligence. The hardware market is segmented into 2D and 3D facial recognition systems with the latter expected to grow the most in the coming decade.

Image Source: Intel / SID  

One of the early hardware platforms that would enable facial recognition was Intel’s Realsense. When the platform was first introduced in 2015, it was positioned as a way for PCs, mobile phones and robotic systems to see beyond two-dimensions or 2D. The smart-camera-based system was capable of sensing the third-dimension or depth perception to better understand objects in its environment. Since the first introduction in 2015, the camera-based system has gotten even smaller in size yet better in performance thanks to the scaling benefits of Moore’s Law.

One of the reasons for the early adoption and growth of the system was that software developers had free access to all of the Realsense APIs. These interfaces interacted with the camera to enable motion tracking, facial expressions – from smiles and frowns to winks – and more. Gesture tracking was also provided to create programs for those cases when users could not really touch the display screen, as while using a cooking recipe. 

“Computers will begin to see the world as we do,” explained Intel’s then CEO Brian Krzanich at the 2015 Society for Information Display conference. “They will focus on key points of a human face instead of the rest of the background. When that happens, the face is no longer a square (2D shape) but part of the application.”  

At the time, one of the early companies adopting the technology was JD.com, a Chinese online consumer distributor. JD.com had replaced its manual tape ruler measurements with container dimensions captured by the RealSense camera platform. This automation had saved almost 3 minutes per container in measurement time. 

Image Source: Intel / SID

Back then, the big deal was to move from 2D to 3D computing, where the third dimension really meant adding depth perception. An example of this extra dimension was given by Ascending Technology, a Germany company that used the Intel platform to enable a fast-moving drone to move quickly through a forest including up and down motions. To accomplish this feat required the use of multiple cameras and an processor.

Now, fast forward to CES 2020, where Intel’s Realsense has further evolved into a platform that not only supports depth perception but also tracking and LiDAR applications. Tracking is accomplished with the addition of two fisheye lens sensors, an Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) and a Intel Movidius Myriad 2 Visual Processing Units (VPU). The cameras scan the surrounding areas and the nearby environment. These scans are then used to construct a digital map that can be used detect surfaces and for real world simulations.

One application of depth perception and tracking at CES was for a robot that would follow its owner and carry things. Gita, the cargo robot from the makers of Vespa, not only followed it owner but also tracked their where-about on the CES exhibitor floor.

LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) was the newest addition to the Realsense platform. LiDAR cameras allow electronics and robots to “see” and “sense” the environment. Such remote sensing technology measures distance to a target by shining the target with a laser light and then measuring the reflected light. It is very accurate and is being used in the automotive industry to complement ultrasonic and regular cameras.

At CES 2020, one of the highlighted LiDAR applications was a full body, real-time, 3D scan of people. Another application of LiDAR was skeletal motion tracking with the Cubemos Skeletal tracking SDK, which boasted the capability to integrate 2D and 3D skeleton tracking into a program with a mere 20 lines of code. The SDK provided full skeleton body tracking of up to 5 people.

Image Source: Intel / Realsense LiDAR

Since its release over 5 years ago, there have been many competitors to Intel’s Realsense platform, including Google Scale, Forge, ThingWorx Industrial IoT, and several others. Such healthy competition attests to the market for compact, relatively inexpensive camera platforms that are capable of depth perception, tracking objects an using LiDAR for scanning of shapes.

John Blyler is a Design News senior editor, covering the electronics and advanced manufacturing spaces. With a BS in Engineering Physics and an MS in Electrical Engineering, he has years of hardware-software-network systems experience as an editor and engineer within the advanced manufacturing, IoT and semiconductor industries. John has co-authored books related to system engineering and electronics for IEEE, Wiley, and Elsevier.

friday-funny:-7-amazing-science-gadgets

Take a look at these strange and fascinating gadgets that show the wonder of motion, balance, and gravity.

This week’s Friday Funny video is a short series of strange and graceful gadgets showing the elegance of the physical world.

Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 19 years, 17 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cyber security. For 10 years, he was owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.

DesignCon 2020 25th anniversary Logo

January 28-30: North America’s largest chip, board, and systems event, DesignCon, returns to Silicon Valley for its 25th year! The premier educational conference and technology exhibition, this three-day event brings together the brightest minds across the high-speed communications and semiconductor industries, who are looking to engineer the technology of tomorrow. DesignCon is your rocket to the future. Ready to come aboard? Register to attend!

are-plastic-recycling-programs-rubbish?

Once an admirable goal for plastic packaging and single-use plastic products, recycling of late has been called “garbage” (New York Times Magazine), “greenwashing” (Greenbiz) and “The Great Recycling Con” (New York Times). In the latter article, authors Tala Schlossebers and Nayeema Raza call recycling “propaganda” because the industry “wants to trick us into thinking we can use as much plastic as we want so long as we recycle.”

Gee, Tala and Nayeema, tell us how you really feel about recycling!

landfill

Recycling seems to have hit a brick wall primarily because of problems associated with the incompatibility of various plastics. “Current plastic recycling and sustainability goals are limited by the intrinsic incompatibility of many polymers and the negative effect of fillers and impurities on end-product properties, thus requiring a high degree of expensive sorting, separating and cleaning,” Sal Monte, President of Kenrich Petrochemicals Inc. (Bayonne, NJ), told PlasticsToday. Another barrier is that the melt processing of polymers causes “chain scissoring,” resulting in recycle and regrind materials having inferior properties compared with virgin resins.

That is why sorting—a labor-intensive activity that results in a lot of waste—is necessary. Monte noted that the reason for separating #1 (PET) and #2 (HDPE) from #5 and #7 is because of the incompatibility between the materials, “unless you use titanium/aluminum additives that perform in situ catalysis of polymers and coupling of fillers,” he said. Using innovative additive technology that permits co-mingling of plastic materials into a single waste stream and deriving value from these materials to produce new products is the Holy Grail of recycling.

Monte said that current compatibilizers offered to recyclers are based on co-polymers or maleic anhydride (MAH) modified polymers. “Co-polymer compatibilizers require extensive sorting to match up the polarities of the recycled materials, and maleic anhydride often depolymerizes condensation polymers such as PET and nylon, obviating their use in post-consumer recycle,” explained Monte. “MAH technology claims to be a coupling agent, which is true for rebuilding polymer molecular weight, but it’s a misnomer when applied to coupling filler and organic interfaces.”

But the real problem is money, noted Monte. For recyclers, it’s unlikely that they will spend a penny more on additives to compatabilize co-mingled polymers. He said that sustainability goals such as a circular economy using curbside recyclate in new plastic parts are not achievable economically absent subsidization and legislation because of:

  • Shale oil—virgin is cheaper;
  • China’s National Sword—no market;
  • quality—Industry 4.0/automation;
  • product liability litigation—specs must be met;
  • additives are expensive—recyclers will not add a penny to their material costs unless extensive and expensive on-site experimentation is allowed to demonstrate economic and technical efficacy;
  • curbside recyclers are not polymer chemists—it’s complicated.

Monte agrees with what I’ve written several times in my previous blogs. “Bulk recycling has pretty much been a confusing mess since it started,” he said.

Image: Aryfahmed/Adobe Stock

lamborghini-says,-"alexa,-go-200-miles-per-hour"

Image source: Automobili Lamborghini 

Why have a plain old boring stationary cylindrical Amazon Alexa when you could have a wedge-shaped Alexa packing 640 horsepower and the ability to rocket to more than 200 mph? That’s what you get with the 2020 Lamborghini Huracan EVO, which adds Alexa integration to its 5.2-liter V10 powerplant, all-wheel drive and dynamic suspension set up.

While other carmakers have already installed Alex artificial intelligence, this is the first time it will be available in a super sports car. Also, this version will be the first to give drivers control of the car’s systems through Alexa.

Others will let you adjust your connected home thermostat using voice commands while driving, but the Huracan EVO lets you do the same thing with the car’s own climate control system. You can also cabin lighting, seat heaters, and the setting of Lamborghini Dinamica Veicolo Integrata (LDVI), Lamborghini’s dynamic suspension system. 

Of course, the usual Alexa capabilities are there too, so you can play music or ask about the weather as with any Alexa-enabled device. But the companies say they have ambitious plans to expand the collaboration, so not only will Alexa’s capabilities be updateable in the Huracan, but they are working on further connectivity and integration with Amazon Web Services for still more features in the future.

Image source: Automobili Lamborghini

“Our vision is for Alexa to become a natural, intuitive part of the driving experience, and Lamborghini has embraced that by integrating Alexa directly into its onboard infotainment systems,” adds Ned Curic, vice president of Alexa Auto at Amazon. “The integration will enable Lamborghini owners to enjoy the convenience of an intelligent voice service while focusing on the joy of the Lamborghini driving experience, and we expect it to set a new standard for in-car voice experiences when it ships this year.” 

This doesn’t mean the Huracan is reduced to a mere vessel for delivery of Alexa services, fortunately, Lamborghini promised. “The Huracan EVO is an outstanding driver’s car, and connectivity enables our customers to focus on the driving, thus enhancing their Lamborghini experience,” says Stefano Domenicali, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Automobili Lamborghini.

Image source: Automobili Lamborghini

Lamborghini has also announced that it will introduce a $208,571 rear-drive version of the Huracan EVO to appeal to purists, so we look forward to put the Raging Bull’s latest developments to the test soon.

Dan Carney is a Design News senior editor, covering automotive technology, engineering and design, especially emerging electric vehicle and autonomous technologies.

top-10-tech-failures-from-2019-that-hint-at-2020-trends
  • As the last year of the last decade, 2019 had a lot to live up to. Within the span of 10 short years, service apps like Uber, Lyft, AirBnB and others on mobile phones became big business. Mobile phone companies introduced amazing personal features like voice assistance (e.g., Siri and Alexa), iCloud connections for fast video streaming, and very high-resolution HD cameras. Not to be outdone, the automobile was transformed with automation tech and electrification. A Tesla electric vehicle even made it into space.

    Space technology flourished in the last decade with the commercialization of space rockets, the launch of hundreds upon hundreds of communication satellites and the increasing popularity of Cubesats. Back on earth, homes and buildings became smarter while alternative forms of energy continued to improve in efficiency. And the list goes on.

    But there were several notable failures in the last decade, many seeming to culminate in 2019. Here is the short list of the 10 tech failures most worthy of mention, in no particular order.

  • #1 Glitchy Spacecraft Launch

    Boeing suffered several major setbacks this year. The first one was an incomplete demonstration flight of its new astronaut capsule. The mission of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft began successfully but suffered technical problems that prevented it from reaching the International Space Station (ISS). Many observers believe that the Starliner capsule on top of an Atlas rocket simply burned too much fuel as it climbed into space, leaving an insufficient amount to reach the ISS. Some have suggested the failure was from a glitchy timer system that turned off the rocket thrusters too soon.

    The demonstration test wasn’t a complete failure as the Starliner did land successfully in the deserts of New Mexico.

  • #2 Andromeda Strain revisited?

    Remember the Andromeda Strain? It was a techno-thriller novel from 1969 written by Michael Crichton that centered around the efforts of a team of scientists investigating the outbreak of a deadly extraterrestrial microorganism in Arizona.

    Fast forward to 2019. A company in Israel launched its first lunar lander that unfortunately crashed-landed on the moon. The small robotic spacecraft called Beresheet was created by the SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). It failed just moments before landing on the moon.

    This was an unmanned operation, but not one devoid of life. A US-based nonprofit had added tardigrades, or water bears, to the capsule. These microscopic, eight-legged creatures could survive in a dormant state through harsh conditions, and maybe even on the moon.

    In other words, earth-based lifeforms have now been introduced to the moon’s ecosystem. Without some water, the tardigrades aren’t likely to revive and spread. But this failure highlights the need for planetary protections – both on the moon and earth.

    It should be noted that the goal of the Arch Mission Foundation was not to contaminate the moon but rather to, “create multiple redundant repositories of human knowledge around the Solar System.” The foundation tests out technologies for long-lasting archives, like securing information in DNA strands or encapsulating insects in artificial amber. In addition to water bears, the Arch’s payload included nickel sheets nanopatterned with thousands of pages of Wikipedia and other texts.

    One of Arch’s first missions was launched by SpaceX on the Falcon Heavy rocket and is now entering an orbit around the Sun for millions of years.  The first books in the Solar Library were Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. Can you guess where they are located? The books containing Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy were placed in the glovebox of the Cherry Red Tesla Roadster that will soon be orbiting the Sun.

  • #3 Communication Failures (again)

    Both Boeing and the FAA have been cited for oversight breakdowns that contributed to 737 Max failure. But the actual cause of the tragedy that resulted in the crash of two Boeing 737 Max aircrafts seems to be broad failures in the automated system that controls the new planes. The report by the Joint Authorities Technical Review panel said that assumptions about critical aspects of the plane’s design were “not adequately reviewed, updated, or validated.”

    This lack of communication and incorporation of warnings from the engineering teams is a common problem with very complex, modern systems, e.g., the Challenger Space Shuttle and others.

  • #4 Disappearing Bitcoin Miners

    While 2019 was overall a profitable year for the semiconductor chip development market, there were a few noticeable declines. One was the system-on-chip (SoC) devices made specifically for bitcoin mining. The cost of mining for bitcoins dramatically increased in 2019, leading to a drop in the need for hardware SoC-based equipment.

    In essence, it took much more effort for bitcoin miners to solve the equations required to validate transactions on the Bitcoin network. This increase in mining difficulty reflects the increased competition.

    Another slowdown was in the market for automotive chips and electronics, as companies and drivers realized that autonomous car technology won’t really be ready for several more years. This corresponds well to Gartner’s famous “trough of disappointment” portion in its hype cycle for emerging technologies.

  • #5 Cloud Buckets

    A new type of cybersecurity issue has emerged in which millions of people have had their personal information exposed through file storage systems known as cloud buckets. Such storage areas typically consist of public resources that are easily accessed by a variety of web service applications. Cloud buckets are like public file folders which contain user information.

    Placing sensitive user data information in the cloud offers companies the capability to offload their security to big firms like Google, Apple, Amazon or Microsoft. The problem is that the buckets are not configured by these firms but rather by the companies who use their cloud networks.

    Not all of these companies are storing their customer information properly. This lack of security is easy pickings for identity thieves. It is an example of readily available information that doesn’t require any hacking.

  • #6 Hacks of the Year

    Speaking of hacks, this year experienced even more cybersecurity breaches. In 2018, there were 500 million personal records stolen, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center. But that number was miniscule compared to the 7.9 billion records exposed in 2019 by over 5,000 breaches, as reported by Risk-Based Security. Compared to the 2018 Q3 report, the total number of 2019 breaches was up 33.3 percent and the total number of records exposed more than doubled, up 112 percent. Here’s just a small sampling of the more infamous breaches (more details here):

    > ElasticSearch Server Breach

    > Canva Data Breach

    > Facebook App Data Exposure 

    > Orvibo Leaked Database

    > Social Media Profiles Data Leak

    Sadly, the common theme in many of these data exposures is that data aggregators obtained and used personal information in a way the owners never imaged or gave their consented. This is a legal problem as much as a technical one.

  • #7 Google Glass

    In 2019, Google announced a new $999 Glass augmented reality headset that looked suspicious like the failed Google Glass from the past.

    Early in 2012, Google co-founder Sergey Brin debuted Google Glass. A year later, the founder and head of the Google Glass Project, Babak Parviz, delivered a keynote about the technology at the IEEE Hot Chips event at Stanford.

    One of the ongoing leading smart phone trends is the ever-improving screen resolution and larger screen size. During his keynote, Parviz argued that there was a physical limit to this trend, but glass offered the next display form factor evolution, i.e., immersion with one’s surroundings. This will be especially important in augmented reality applications.

    Originally, Google Glass was a standalone unit (not yet cloud-based) that included internet access, voice controls, and a camera for pictures and videos. It accomplished all of this with dual core processors running at more than 1 GHz. Five MEMS sensors capture all the environmental data. It had a two-dimensional touch panel on side of glass.

    Why was this technology a failure? It wasn’t because of the technology, but rather because it wasn’t clear to the customer what problem it solved or why they needed it. Additionally, many felt it was intrusive as a user of the device could take pictures and short film snippets of people without their knowledge.

    In January 2015, Google announced that they would no longer be developing Google Glass. But that wasn’t the end of the project. Instead, Google pivoted to the business sector by launching Glass Enterprise Edition for workplaces like factories in 2017. This year, Google announced the Glass augmented reality headset.

  • #8 Folding Phone

    Samsung’s Galaxy folding phone was billed as a new dawn in display technology. The phone levered open into a 7.3-inch dynamic AMOLED display.

    Unfortunately, the company had to postpone the launched of the folding phone after early review models broke, delaminated, and got filled with gunk. The problem seemed to be potential defects with a weak hinge as well as substances found inside the device.

    As with many new technologies, the price tag also presented a barrier to anyone but early adopters. A reengineered and improved version is now on sale for near $2,000.

  • #9 Machine-Bias or Garbage-in, Garbage-out

    The challenge of machine-bias came clearly into focus in 2019. Similar to human-bias, machine-bias occurs when the learning process for a Silicon-based machine makes erroneous assumptions due to the limitations of a data set and pre-programming criteria. One example of machine-bias was recently revealed in Apple’s new credit card, which contained an algorithm to decide how much trustworthy (or risky) a user might be. This evaluation used to be done by trained humans but now is often performed by AI based algorithms.

    Apple’s credit card was shown to have a gender bias. Males are more likely to get a higher credit line limit than females. This bias was highlighted when a male entrepreneur was assigned a spending limit 10 times higher than that of his wife, even though they have a common account.

    How does a machine get a bias? A report from IBM Research outlines two main ways AI systems could inherit biases. First, the AI software might contain errors and dependencies. Second, the data set from which AI learns its task may have flaws and bias. These data points come from the real world which contains many biases, e.g., favoring white men to the exclusion of women and minorities. Algorithms are only as smart as the data you feed them. This is a modern update of the old computer data expression, “garbage-in, garbage-out.”

  • #10 Software App Failures

    No list of tech failures would be complete without mention of the apps that didn’t make it. The range of the applications that failed is wide.

    Consider first British Airways (BA) glitch, whose computer system completely wend down during a peak travel season. Over a hundred flights of BA were cancelled and near to 300 delayed. Thousands of passengers were affected. Sadly, this wasn’t the first time the system had failed, which suggests a systemic problem that has not been properly addressed by management.

    Or how about the Facebook 2019 failure that prevented users from viewing or loading images form the newsfeed? Several other social media apps had a similar problem, including Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger. In each case, users were prevented from sending messages, media files and the like.  Facebook claimed their problem was the result of an accident during routine maintenance.

    Several app failures or hacks from 2019 include Apple’s Facetime bug and the Ring security camera intrusions. The later may have been more of a customer problem as Ring notes that the system invasion was likely the result of the hacker gaining access to the family’s account through weak or stolen login credentials.

here's-what's-on-the-plastics-industry's-wish-list-for-2020

It was one hell of a [insert your adjective] year, but one thing you can’t say is that it was boring. That was true of the movies—The Irishman! Ford v Ferrari! Once Upon a Time in Hollywood! Parasite!—music—Billie Eilish! Lizzo! Billie Eilish!—and, last but not least, politics—Trump! Brexit! Impeachment!

It was a year to remember for the plastics industry, as well, 2019 being a K year, after all. We had a great time at the show, discovering new products, identifying trends and catching up with folks in the industry from around the world.

year change to 2020

But 2019 is winding down and our attention turns to the year ahead, which gave us the idea of asking people associated with the plastics industry what was on their wish list for 2020. Here’s what they told us.

A special thanks to all of the folks who shared their 2020 wish lists with PlasticsToday, and now we invite you, dear readers, to share your wishes for the new year in the comments section below. And allow me to take this opportunity to wish each and every one of you a happy new year. Let’s hope it’s a good one, without any fear, as someone once sang.

Circularity of the economy is a must for the future

Mark Costa, Eastman“As a materials innovation company, Eastman is working toward creating infinite value from our finite resources as we strive to improve the quality of life globally in a material way. We believe circularity of the economy is a must for the future and that chemical recycling is a critical tool for making that happen. In this arena, our greatest wish for 2020 is that chemical recycling becomes accepted as a legitimate recycling option, facilitated by a mass balance credit approach. As a subset of that, we want to see policies and infrastructure created to drive the collection, aggregation and distribution of plastic waste to companies like ours that can use it right now as a feedstock to create new, circular materials.”

—Mark Costa, Board Chair and CEO, Eastman


We will drive digitalization even further

Stefan Engleder, ENGEL“Digitalization is paving the way for solving some of the toughest challenges of our time. One important field are the emerging initiatives regarding the circular economy. Only by connecting companies along the value chain, will we be capable of implementing a sustainable recycling network. Digitalization is the enabler of a modern, healthy and eco-friendly life. For 2020, I wish that together, with our customers, we will drive digitalization even further.”

—Dr. Stefan Engleder, CEO, Engel Holding

Plastics is strong

David Preusse, Wittmann Battenfeld USA“Plastic bans continue and may be gaining some momentum, but I can’t state the actual effects since much of it is based on emotion and there are hardly any better materials to replace plastics. We see more advances in plastics applications in the medical field that continue to save lives and push life expectancy. It’s too bad the public isn’t learning how plastics are saving lives and contributing to our sustainability. As governments add more bans and brand owners demand recycling, while China isn’t taking our trash, we might start to see the real change that I believe is possible. Landfills are not the answer.

“The U.S. division of Wittmann Battenfeld had a super year. After 12 years of a wonderful economic climb, I don’t expect 2020 growth necessarily, but if we actually do see growth, I will be very pleased.

“If we don’t follow the negative news media, we are still so fortunate here in the United States. Plastics is strong, and we all should be proud. If a partial slow down comes, just maybe we slow the issue we face in not having enough of a technical trained workforce and slow the challenges in such a low unemployment situation (technical unemployment is below 2%!).”

—David Preusse, President, Wittmann Battenfeld USA

Main image: Phunrawin/Adobe Stock

plastics-in-song:-our-take-on-the-all-time-classic-contributions-of-plastic-to-music

From 78s manufactured until the late 1950s from shellac, to LP records that debuted in 1948 pressed from PVC, and the compact disc released in 1982 that was injection-molded using polycarbonate, plastics traditionally played a key role in disseminating all manner of music, and thence culture, globally. And while vinyl records have been making a comeback of sorts of late, music has for all intents and purpose transitioned to a digital product, much to the detriment of album cover artwork.

Plastic has also played its part in music culture, be it band and artist names, track names, lyrics and, indeed, costumes and props. Here, we’d like to pay homage to the best—and worst—in our all-time Plastic Emmy/Razzie awards.

                                                                                                                                              [Photo: Bandcamp]

Best song title: “Plastic Factory” by Captain Beefheart. An all-time classic from the late multi-instrumentalist born Don Van Vliet. I never got the connection with phosphorus, but apparently the Captain didn’t like working there judging from the lyrics: Phos’phrous chimney burnin’, modern-men’s a-learnin’, Time and space a-turnin’, Motor’s engine churnin’, fac’trys no place for me boss man let me be. Special mention here for Icelandic electronic band Gus Gus and its 1998 song, “Polyesterday.”

true-confessions:-a-plastics-engineer-discovers-the-true-meaning-of-black-friday

It happens every year, on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Stuff is on sale. All kinds of great stuff. And at incredible prices!

Person in street with shopping bags
Image: Ablokhin/Adobe Stock.

One story about the meaning of the phrase Black Friday is that retailers begin to turn a profit for the year on this day, with their net revenue number going from red to black. I have a hard time believing this. In fact, I have a hard time believing most company reports on profits and losses. I also have a hard time believing general statements on many corporate decisions. Often, the reasoning boils down to a simple statement: It’s not economically feasible.

I took my collection of PE film bags to my local Vons supermarket two days before Thanksgiving. The bag had been sitting in the trunk of my car for several weeks. Someone had referred me to a page to find a collection site. I entered my ZIP code, saw the name Vons on the list, got rather excited. Vons is owned by Albertsons Co., the second largest grocery company in North America. Here in Southern California, Vons stores are everywhere. When I saw Vons on the list, I assumed my local store was involved. I was wrong.

Seems my local store can’t be bothered with collecting plastic bags. I think I can guess the reason: It’s not economically feasible.

I am not an expert, but I know the basic economics of manufacturing and distribution: Fixed costs, variable costs, capital investment, amortization, overhead, gross vs. net, profit vs. loss. I know what’s involved in bringing a new product or new technology to market. Sure, there are times when something is not economically feasible, but there are also times when the real answer is: We don’t know how to do it. Or even worse: We don’t want to do it.

I don’t go shopping on Black Friday. I don’t like dealing with the crowds. Also, shopping online these days has gotten incredibly efficient. I can order anything I need online—the vendor selected based on reliability and cost efficiency—and have it delivered to my door, often at no extra cost. Sometimes, it arrives at my front door within a few hours of my ordering it. How can this be economically feasible?

The delivery itself is simple. The item is well packaged, usually in a cardboard box, with some bubble wrap, foam cushioning, packing peanuts, paper packing slips and receipts, and various PE shipping bags. If I want to keep the item, I take all of the packaging and put it in my recycling bin for curbside pickup. Of course, I am paying for this service via various taxes and fees, but I don’t know the cost breakdown, or if it is economically feasible. But the PE shipping bags I have to separate and take to a specialized collection site . . . which is not my local Vons.

But the funny thing is, if I want to return the item I just bought, with all of its packaging, all it takes is a couple of clicks. I put everything back in the box, drop it off at a local collection site and get a refund within minutes. How can this be economically feasible?

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy delivered a speech to a joint session of Congress. In that speech, he stated that the United States should set a goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth by the end of the decade. I don’t think he used the disclaimer, just as long as it is economically feasible.

That speech inspired America. In July of 1969, we landed human beings on the surface of the moon and brought them home safely. While we left behind all kinds of trash in the process, that event changed the world.

Today, some 50 years later, we are struggling with the issue of plastic trash. Yes, there are technical problems that need to be solved, but it seems that a lot of effort is being spent trying to determine what is—and what is not—economically feasible.  

Now that is what I call a Black Friday.

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

― John F. Kennedy, Address at Rice University, September 12, 1962

The next part in this series will be published on Dec. 19. If you’re a newcomer to this series, you can read part one here.

Eric LarsonEric R. Larson is a mechanical engineer with over 30 years’ experience in designing products made from plastics. He is the owner of Art of Mass Production, an engineering consulting company based in San Diego, CA. Products he has worked on have been used by millions of people around the world.

Larson is also moderator of the blog site plasticsguy.com, where he writes about the effective use of plastics. His most recent book is Poly and the Poopy Heads, a children’s book about plastics and the environment. It is available on Amazon.

chemical-recycling-is-back,-and-it's-taking-a-seat-at-the-circular-economy-table

It is said that everything old becomes new again, and that adage is true for chemical recycling of plastic waste. Chemical recycling is a process that has been around for more than six decades but was almost unheard of until the so-called “plastic pollution crisis” came into the spotlight. Now, resin producers are looking at anything and everything in an attempt to find solutions for ridding the planet of plastic waste.

Recycling symbol in futuristic setting

An article in the Dec. 9 edition of the Wall Street Journal, “Plastics Recycling Gets Fresh Tech Push,” authored by Saabira Chaudhuri, discusses the resurgence of chemical recycling, noting that “companies are turning to [chemical recycling] now, partly because of the need to find more recycled material to meet or forestall regulations aiming to cut emissions and waste.”

Chemical recycling ran into the same problem that mechanical recycling encounters: The cost made recycled material more expensive than virgin resin, so what’s the point? Obviously, it has become increasingly important to capture the value of plastic waste and keep it out of the environment, giving rise to the return of chemical recycling, which is getting a lot of attention specifically for difficult-to-recycle plastic waste.

On October 24, 2019, BP announced the development of BP Infinia, which enables currently unrecyclable polyethylene terephthalate (PET) waste to be diverted from landfill or incineration and, instead, transformed back into new, virgin-quality feedstock. To that end, BP plans to construct a $25-million pilot plant in Naperville, IL, to prove the technology, before progressing to full-scale commercialization, according to the company’s press release.

BP’s information noted that Infinia technology is designed to turn difficult-to-recycle PET plastic waste, such as black food trays and colored bottles, into recycled feedstock that is interchangeable with material made from traditional hydrocarbon sources. The recycled feedstock can then be used to make new PET packaging that can be recycled again and again. This could reduce the need for downcycling and divert plastic waste from landfill and incineration.

Chaudhuri mentioned that BP’s CEO, Robert Dudley, told investors earlier this year that BP sees chemical recycling as a “game changer,” but also noted that most recycling technologies have to overcome various hurdles. One of those is “getting a steady supply of material to recycle.”

What are the pros and cons, challenges and opportunities of traditional and emerging recycling technologies? How effective are returnable packaging schemes in reducing plastic waste? Clare Goldsberry tackles these questions in “Real world solutions to the plastic waste challenge.” The article can be downloaded free of charge here or by going to the Whitepapers tab on the PlasticsToday home page.

The demand for rPET is big and growing, but another obstacle is collection and, if it is to be virgin-like, eliminating contamination of the recyclate. BP said that it sees the potential to develop multiple full-scale commercial plants using this technology around the world. If deployed at scale in a number of facilities, BP estimates that the technology has the potential to prevent billions of PET bottles and trays from ending up in landfill or incineration every year.

Ineos Styrolution and Agilyx jointly announced on Dec. 9 that they are advancing the development of a polystyrene (PS) chemical recycling facility in Channahon, IL. The facility will be capable of processing up to 100 tons per day of post-consumer PS and converting it into a styrene that will go into the manufacture of new polystyrene products. The facility will leverage Agilyx’s proprietary chemical recycling technology, which breaks down polystyrene to its molecular base monomers that will be used for the creation of new styrenic polymers. This is a true circular recycling approach that enables everyday products, like a cup, to be recycled back into a cup, said the announcement.

Agilyx recently completed a successful development program for Ineos Styrolution that qualified the styrene product to Ineos’ specifications and the post-consumer PS feedstock for the process. The next phase of the project advances the engineering and design of the facility.

“This plant will dramatically increase recycling rates in the greater Chicago area, dispelling the myth that polystyrene can’t be recycled,” said Ricardo Cuetos, VP Ineos Styrolution Americas, Standard Products. “Agilyx’s chemical recycling technology is a game changer to advance the circular recycling pathway of plastics. A benefit of chemical recycling is there is no degradation over multiple cycles—the polymers can continue to create new products over and over again of the same purity and performance as virgin polystyrene. We are thrilled to partner with Agilyx on this project.”

The proprietary Agilyx process can recycle polystyrene contaminated with food and other organics and convert it back into new, food-grade plastic products or packaging. The process demonstrates that so much more post-consumer plastics in the world today can be chemically recycled into new plastic products again and become a renewable resource.

“Polystyrene is the best option for prepared food and beverage containers,” said Agilyx CEO Joe Vaillancourt. “We are excited to be working with Ineos Styrolution to advance this chemical recycling pathway that has the ability to significantly increase recycling rates all over the world.”

Image: Sergey Nivens/Adobe Stock