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Demand for Green Plastics Manufacturing Grows

Conference Helps Companies Transition to Eco-Friendly Frontier

Prof. Ken Geiser, left, co-director of the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, led a panel of environmental experts covering topics such as “sustainable biopolymer guidelines” and “the promise of bioplastics.”

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Neither rain nor sleet nor….a Nor’easter could keep the plastics industry from a green plastics manufacturing conference held recently in Wannalancit.

Even with parts of Lowell under water and the closure of the University, every single participantwho had registered  ߝ more than 100 in all ߝ showed up for the Sustainable Materials Conference in Green Plastics Manufacturing conference, April 17 and 18.

“That’s not even what you’d see with a regular conference,” said Prof. Robert Malloy, chair of the Plastics Engineering Department. “Usually there are several no-shows.”

They traveled from all across the globe ߝ engineers, scientists, marketing executives, business developers, chemists, R&D directors, entrepreneurs. Clearly, there is interest in greening the plastics industry.

Conference organizers reported that business professionals -- from Fortune 500 companies to small entrepreneurial start-ups -- showed up to learn how to incorporate recent breakthrough advances in green plastics manufacturing into their organizations in an effort to transition away from the traditional petroleum-based plastics manufacturing model to a more eco-friendly frontier of producing plastic products from sustainable, renewable resources such as corn.

The Plastics Institute of America (PIA) in conjunction with the Plastics Engineering Department and the Division of Continuing Studies, Corporate and Distance Education hosted the one-and-a-half day conference.

“The demand in the marketplace is here. And now the technology is here,” said Plastics Engineering Prof. Aldo Crugnola, executive director of PIA, who, along with  Prof. Nick Schott, director of Educational and Research Programs for PIA, initiated the conference. “This conference was held to educate companies about the technology and give them real world solutions to making the transition.”

The first session, “Biopolymer Synthesis and Design,” focused on innovations in the chemical makeup of sustainable plastic products. It was led by Prof. John Warner of UMass Lowell’s Center for Green Chemistry. The second session, “Processing and Manufacturing,” was led by Prof. Stephen McCarthy, director of the Biodegradable Polymer Research Center. It featured plastics industry experts presenting on the processing of these new biopolymers. The third session, “Environmental Footprint,” addressed the sustainability of biopolymers and their impact on the environment from an agricultural and “zero waste” perspective. It was led by Prof. Ken Geiser of Work Environment, co-director of the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production. 

Companies represented at the event included The Timberland Co., Blue Ridge Paper, Johnson & Johnson, NatureWorks, New Balance Shoe, Battenfeld Gloucester, Georgia Pacific, BD Medical, Playtex, the US Army and more.

“This is a very exciting time for our students and faculty to engage in discussions about these new technologies that have the potential to transform the plastics industry,” said Cathy Kendrick, director of Corporate and Distance Market Development for Continuing Studies, which helped organize the conference.

In introductory remarks to the conference attendees, Provost John Wooding emphasized the University’s leadership role in many new technologies including biotechnology, nanotechnology, green chemistry and green plastics manufacturing, and encouraged continuing strategic partnerships with companies to help these new academic disciplines move forward. One such example is the University’s strategic relationship with Metabolix, Inc. of Cambridge, MA, a company that is developing a biobased, sustainable and totally biodegradable Natural Plastic as a clean alternative to petroleum-based plastics. Metabolix had four speakers at the event and sponsored a luncheon.

Plastics Engineering Profs. Aldo Crugnola, left, and Nick Schott helped initiate the green plastics manufacturing conference held recently in Wannalancit.