Standards Impact

The Future Of Plastics

January 09, 2024 (Dave Walsh, JP Ervin, Julia Farber, Mark Lavach) Season 1 Episode 6
The Future Of Plastics
Standards Impact
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Standards Impact
The Future Of Plastics
Jan 09, 2024 Season 1 Episode 6
(Dave Walsh, JP Ervin, Julia Farber, Mark Lavach)

Mark Lavach, the Senior Principal Engineer and Manager of Polymer, Separations, and Systems Sciences for Arkema and Julia Farber, the Senior Strategic Manager of Circular Economy & Standards for Eastman, sit down with host Dave Walsh to talk about the future of plastics.  From compostable to biodegradable, they discuss the latest material developments and the standards that are helping these advancements in plastics.  Later, JP Ervin discusses the fascinating world of sensory evaluation and the ways in which it is being used to improve the products in our lives.

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Presented by ASTM International

Show Notes Transcript

Mark Lavach, the Senior Principal Engineer and Manager of Polymer, Separations, and Systems Sciences for Arkema and Julia Farber, the Senior Strategic Manager of Circular Economy & Standards for Eastman, sit down with host Dave Walsh to talk about the future of plastics.  From compostable to biodegradable, they discuss the latest material developments and the standards that are helping these advancements in plastics.  Later, JP Ervin discusses the fascinating world of sensory evaluation and the ways in which it is being used to improve the products in our lives.

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Presented by ASTM International

Dave Walsh (00:20):

Welcome to Standards Impact, the official podcast of ASTM International. I'm Dave Walsh, Editor-in-Chief of ASTM's Flagship Publication Standardization News. And today [00:00:30] I'm joined by Mark Lavach, a senior principal engineer and manager of polymer separations and system sciences for Arkema. And Julia Farber, a senior strategic manager at Eastman. All right, so let's jump right in. And Julia, the first question is for you, plastics and the way they fit into the circular economy is a major issue in the world today. As the D20 Vice chair on sustainability, you've been working on a guide for terms and definitions in circular plastics. [00:01:00] What does this entail and how will it assist the circular economy? And Mark, please feel free to jump in.

Julia Farber (01:04):

Yeah, that's a really good question. Thank you for starting that out, Dave. So essentially, just to back up a little bit, my role is newer to the D20 executive team, and the idea here was that there was an appreciation that sustainability is really going to affect the future of plastics. And so we did a survey to help identify some new standards that D20 could get involved in, specifically tied to mostly D 2095 or D 2096. [00:01:30] And in that survey, one of the things that emerged is that we just don't have consistent understanding of the terms associated with the circular economy and plastics. So it was agreed during a committee week, I think a year ago, that the very first work item that we would need to establish would be one that identified different standard terminology for circular plastics. We are going to be resurrecting an older standard that had been put to bed, but that has a lot of the core information [00:02:00] from just the category of recycling. But what this will do is this will establish the first foundational standard that really helps us to approach other circular economy topics so we can have an A STM level setting of different definitions. I

Mark Lavach (02:12):

Think it's also consistent with the philosophy of ASTM and the philosophy of D 20. And as we're developing this guide and maybe some other documents, we're really looking to collaborate with all facets of the supply chain. Dave, [00:02:30] what does that mean? Whatever guide and guidance documents are written won't just be from the viewpoint of the producers, the people who use the products. We really want to incorporate all facets of the value chain. What does that mean? It means when you put your plastic in your little blue or red or orange bin, from that point on, these people will have a say in what we develop. [00:03:00] And that's a little different I think, than is being done in other organizations across the world. We're also going to be looking to work with these organizations as well.

Dave Walsh (03:09):

Yeah, and it's interesting. It seems like most big important work done in standards begins with a terminology. It begins with a guide like that, standard definitions everyone can agree on. So that's interesting. Obviously sustainability is a priority in the field of plastics today, as we were just touching on. But specifically, what are some of the other standards that are being developed [00:03:30] in this area and how will they make the field more sustainable?

Julia Farber (03:33):

Yeah, that's also really great question. So what's really interesting is that sustainability as a concept has really been influencing how ASTM develops standards for a very long time at this point. So much so that there is a searchable database now on the ASTM website that you can go to and has a special link for all of the different sustainability related standards that have been developed through ASTM. ASTM also has a sustainability focused [00:04:00] committee called E 60 and D 20 is collaborating with E 60 very closely specifically on the things that have to do with plastics. But E 60 is working on a number of different sustainability related standards. In the meantime, what we're doing under D 20, we're really focusing in on the committees, the subcommittees that have responsibility over a variety of different sustainability, circular economy topics. We already have a number of biodegradability and compostability test methodologies.


We already have different guidance [00:04:30] that's in development on under E 60. We have other separation and washing related type of test methods. So there is an awful lot of standards already published and developed by ASTM. And what we're planning on doing is taking the results of the survey that we identified to help inform the future standards that we develop. What we're trying to do in a circular economy is incentivize the collection and basically the reuse and reincorporation of materials before they [00:05:00] end up in what we call an end of life scenario like land filling or incineration, right? Basically, we're trying to recapture all of the value that could potentially be lost from the materials that are already in the world and in use. And this means we're really going to be fundamentally asking how do we build out new infrastructure? So there's going to be a variety of new standards that are required, many of which ASTM can play a very important role to develop that help us to be very clear about what we mean about better design choices.


How [00:05:30] do we adopt sustainable chemistry? How do we align product design and different infrastructure capacity? These are questions that E 60 is trying to answer, and we're doing that in cooperation. They have a circular design standard in development at this very moment. There's also a lot of requests for additional transparency and messaging, like what terms do we really mean when we say circular economy? What is a circular polymer? What is reuse? What is recycling? How do you label these things? We've also got a lot of questions. How do we help eliminate pollution? So here we [00:06:00] have logistics that could help close loops to prevent plastic from leaking out into the environment. And specifically a lot of concern and interest around microplastics and test methodologies that could help identify and characterize different kinds of micro and nanoplastics and the potential creation of a lot of different infrastructure elements.


But we want to think about quality assurance. We are thinking about acceptable levels of contamination. We were thinking of a standard guide for reuse or sorting or recycling, and then there's some standards for specifications or characteristics that have [00:06:30] to do with the aspects of the plastic itself, how bendable, how punctual it is, how does it end up staying durable for longer because those are two things we need to make sure that we really think about is not only do you want to understand the characteristics of the plastics more, but we also need to make sure we're incentivizing that if a plastic is designed to be used for an extended period of time, when it finally does get to the point it needs to get sunset or recycled through the system, there's a system in place to help do that.

Dave Walsh (06:57):

This gives a good jumping off point for Mark. And [00:07:00] I was going to say, what are your thoughts on this? The terminology maybe specifically that Julia is working on, and also the larger issues she brings up about the circular economy in general.

Mark Lavach (07:10):

It's all very important. I'm what's known as a plastic and what is that? So I've been involved in plastics for most of my career, which is long. And then we think about the dinosaurs, right? We don't want what happened to the dinosaurs to happen to the plastics industry. The plastic industry needs to [00:07:30] change. It needs to change. Its some of its habits. What's been allowed, what was allowed 30, 40 years ago can't be allowed today. As Julia said, an end of life solution cannot be a landfill. We have to think of how to reutilize these plastics, reuse these plastics, recycle these plastics, repurpose, upcycle, all of these things go on the modern convention, Dave, is that [00:08:00] we talk about sustainability and there are those of us who throughout of our career thought we were developing sustainable plastics. Well, what does that mean? Plastics that will last for decades. That's what we were tasked with doing. Okay, and we've done it very well. But these plastics, many of 'em, which are single use lifetimes defined by decades, they have to be considered as well. So it's not just the PET [00:08:30] bags that we see or use it shopping or some of the single use packaging we use for food products. It's pipe, it's siding. All of this has to be considered in the circular economy and methodologies and guidance documents and standards are needed to help ensure that these materials are considered as well.

Dave Walsh (08:55):

And this is a perfect lead in to another question I had, which was about biodegradable and compostable [00:09:00] plastics. And the reason I bring it up is because it's so interesting to the lay person and whenever we produce content on it for standardization news, it gets a lot of traffic. It's almost like the holy grail in the consumer's mind. Oh, I don't have to worry about plastic anymore. It's just going to dissolve into the ground. So I wanted to ask you both and I can see you smiling. Is there such a thing as a truly biodegradable or compostable plastic? And what are some of the technologies and materials that might make that possible?

Julia Farber (09:27):

I think the first thing that we need to really clarify is [00:09:30] that plastic is a property of a material. And this is, I think where it gets really interesting and why this particular committee on ASTM has such a wide variety of potential topics it could cover is because we're talking about a class of materials. We're not talking about one single type of material. We're talking about something that carries a whole variety of different properties. But essentially a plastic is just a material that's able to retain its characteristics when it's warmed up and then it's cold, it retains its new shake basically. [00:10:00] So this fundamental question about are there really biodegradable or are they really compostable plastics? Yes, there absolutely are. We need to be really clear about what we mean when we say something is biodegradable, when it's compostable, and when it's bio-based because there's a lot of confusion and conflation about these particular terms.


So biodegradability and compostability indicate an attribute that's been designed into a material so that it's end of life, it will break down into in a way that is compatible with the ecosystem in a way that actually is really [00:10:30] benign and also edible for tiny little microorganisms to be digested and then to completely dissolve and disappear. What we want to make sure is really clear is that if you design a compostable material is intended to help ensure that you are not creating additional complexities for certain kinds of waste collection systems. So in particular the food waste system. So you want to develop something that's super compatible with the food waste system so that you don't create problems for the composter and that [00:11:00] you're creating quality soils at the end, right? Where we get into troubles when you mix in things that have not been designed with those characteristics that get thrown into those mixes.


So really the intention here is to help address food waste In most cases when you have something that's compostable, there are certain other industries that might find it useful to have compostable elements as well, typically textiles. Also, other things that are out there in the universe might want to go through a compostability test to find out what happens in those particular conditions that we can create and control. [00:11:30] So I want to make it very clear that the reason that you do these test methods is actually to make sure that they are kept controlled and outside of our bodies and our waterways and are kept in a place that'll actually end up in the right end of life scenario, which in this case is a compost pile. A biodegradable material though might be one that you want to design. If you know for a fact that the particular type of product has an intention to interact with environment in a way that it sheds microplastics or that if you have a textile that sheds or a tire tried that rubs off in [00:12:00] use or a fishing net that's going to interact directly with water, you want to make sure that should something fall off of that, something that's really almost difficult or impossible to collect, that it is compatible with the ecosystem in a way that it will not create some sort of deleterious effect that we don't know about, right?


So there is intention in designing products that have that specific use case that it will not end up creating a problem for the ecosystem. So a SM is trying to reflect how real world [00:12:30] human behavior is going to dispose of certain kinds of materials and make sure that if that behavior is pursued, this material will not remain in the environment and will not become a problem for any of the parts of the biosphere that interact with it,

Dave Walsh (12:45):

That various points in your answer. Mark was nodding his head, so I thought I'd give him a chance to comment here on what you just said.

Mark Lavach (12:52):

When you look at the media, you look at the news, you see what's going on, you hear about terms like [00:13:00] microplastics. Julia mentioned shedding. We don't want these products as they degrade to form microplastics. We want them to become one with the environment. So we are very aware of the effects of these processes and it's all tied back to the environment. Biodegradable polymers are a very important class. Julia mentioned bio-based polymers. If you look at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, they have a wonderful chart that describes [00:13:30] this whole area of bioplastics, of which biodegradable materials are a very important part, but there are also plastics that will never be designed to biodegrade. You don't want a piece of pipe, for instance, to degrade. You want it to last a long time, but that doesn't say that can't be made from a bio-based material. It won't biodegrade, but it will [00:14:00] help with say, depletion of natural resources. It won't be using things that are akin with fossil fuels and things like that. It's another important element of this. So you have to look at the entire picture. Biodegradable plastics are very important, especially, and the way to go for short-term duration, plastics, bio-based plastics are an alternative for much longer term duration projects.

Julia Farber (14:27):

Thank you, marker for honing in on that [00:14:30] because honestly, a lot of people do get confused. They think something's bio-based means it is biodegradable or it is compostable. And again, we just want to encourage people to know that what you're really looking for, if you want to talk about end of life, is you're looking for a certified compostable plastic because that means it's been through a test method and it has been demonstrated to meet our standards typically because A STM is global leader on this particular topic, and we have the leading test methodology that's out there.

Dave Walsh (14:56):

I wanted to tee up a question for Mark. I imagine training [00:15:00] and courses and all sorts of proficiency programs go into your work as well. Now, I know you are also an officer of D 20 as well as a coursework instructor. So can you tell us about some of d twenty's other activities in the areas of proficiency programs and training courses?

Mark Lavach (15:15):

Sure. And let's start with Biodegradability. We are currently developing both training programs and proficiency tests in this area because you have to be certified to do some of this testing. Julia [00:15:30] mentioned about certification for compostability. That's probably going to become an element. Are you qualified? Are you competent to run this test? So we're looking at doing work in this area, but we have a number of other programs for plastics. If we look at training first, we have techniques that teach you how to test plastic major testing techniques for plastics, which is really a broad focus on all of the D 20 methodology. We have a course [00:16:00] in analyzing polymers via instrumental methods and MRRE, whatever technique you want to take a look at. We've offered training programs in bioplastics, in biodegradability. We also have some online training modules. If someone just wants to get familiar with what's involved with testing plastics, we have an e-learning modules on the basics of testing plastics.


Once you test, now we can talk about proficiency, which goes [00:16:30] in line maybe with your certification programs. We have a variety of proficiency testing programs, elemental analysis, flammability, mechanical properties, testing of films. We also get into the testing of specific materials such as polyethylene and polypropylene, and finally flammability and thermal analysis characteristics of plastics, all of which our members or companies have access to. And it forms the basis [00:17:00] of what's known as collaborative testing where you can see how your lab is performing relative to say, the industry standard. Are you doing these tests? Are you getting the same results? You learn a lot of information from these tests, which we can use to further improve our methodologies.

Dave Walsh (17:22):

So now in the reverse, I can see Julia's smiling and nodding as you're talking. So Julia, what are your thoughts on the importance of training and essentially [00:17:30] I think of it as education on this topic in addition to proficiency programs? I think

Julia Farber (17:34):

It's important for people to be aware that there's a lot of effort put into developing these standards that they will be used and adopted in the marketplace, and I think it's really incredible and also very relevant that ASTM then offers supporting training to help people learn how those methodologies work and actually adapt them into the marketplace whenever possible. If you are listening out there and you have any interest in [00:18:00] gaining a new skillset, ASTM really does provide a lot of really incredible opportunities to bolster the things you might want to learn and make sure that you understand the test methods and are able to actually help the market use them.

Dave Walsh (18:13):

So looking ahead, what are the most important issues that are facing the field of plastics and by connection D 20, what type of standards will we see in the next few years? What is the long-term plan where if you could have a magic wand, where would we be in 20, 30 years?

Julia Farber (18:28):

So thank you for that question. [00:18:30] As I shared earlier, the committee has really spent a bit of time prioritizing validating the information that we heard from the survey that we did about a year ago, and we've really identified the direction that we need to go. So as far as what's now, we are working on the compostability and biodegradability test methods, including one to deal with both a collaborative effort with D 34, which is for waste management on compostables and real world testing. That's very important, a home composting test method that will also [00:19:00] be extremely important. People are very interested. In the meantime, we are also very interested in the outcome of a test method that's being discussed right now on what we're calling marine aqueous environments. This means microplastics that end up in the oceans, how do we end up characterizing them and how do we end up testing for what kind of material is really captured in those situations so that we can again assist with preventing that kind of intrusion into that space?


And I just want to say again, [00:19:30] if you are out there and you're interested in this as Mark shared at the very beginning, we need everybody from all parts of the sector to participate in this to make this a really rich and robust standard. Additionally, what we're going to do after this, what's in the next year to three year plan is we have a desire to do a quality assurance for materials that come out of mechanical or chemical or physically recycled plastics. We also want to do a standard that's related to the acceptable levels of contamination for recycled or compostable streams [00:20:00] because there is a lot of contamination that ends up in these spaces, and we're trying to see if there's a way that A STM could help set maximum limits. There's a desire to do a guide for reusing and sorting and recycling, just general guidance on how to do that to help support this recovery infrastructure we talked about, and a guide for specifications for characteristics.


In the meantime, we have active partnerships going right now with other A S TM committees and with ISO and with send. So we're learning a lot about what's happening in some other spaces, and we're trying to make sure that we're really doing a [00:20:30] good job to incorporate other perspectives. There's been some chatter that we might need to develop some sort of general guidance to collect all of the different standards that A STM has already written to help support the green chemistry design. So there's a lot of great green chemistry principles that are out there and dozens of A STM standards that help support people to get there. We will hopefully be able to prioritize some new microplastic characterization and test methods, and we want to do that in collaboration with D 19. We've also been talking to D two [00:21:00] and we've also been talking to E 50. So we've got our relationships through the A STM community, but more importantly, as Mark said, we need more help to help make sure that the full recycling and compostability infrastructure players are represented, because as you guys know, a standard is only as effective as long as it really reflects with the market needs and all the disparate stakeholder interests.

Dave Walsh (21:23):

That was a great and thorough overview, and I'm glad you used this podcast to plug the membership and ask for help. That's what [00:21:30] we're here for.

Mark Lavach (21:32):

I'm going to go back to philosophy. Yeah, I think what I would want to know is that whatever we did today, we just didn't kick the can down the road. We're being asked to solve the problems of today, but we're also being asked to anticipate the problems of tomorrow. And so many times in life, you really don't take that into account. Microplastics, [00:22:00] for instance, is a burgeoning problem. We need to figure out how to deal effectively with them today. So it's not a problem tomorrow. Microplastics are, they're all over the place. We're finding them in animals, refining 'em in the human body. They're an element of biodegradation, but they shouldn't at all be totally linked to degradation of [00:22:30] plastics. Okay? Figuring out how to measure these things, figuring out their impact, all of this is going to be real important for the industry moving forward.

Dave Walsh (22:40):

Forward. This has been a great discussion so far, but amazingly, we're coming to the end of our time. We've already been talking longer than you'd imagine. We're just

Mark Lavach (22:49):

Getting started.

Dave Walsh (22:52):

But I did want to get to a plug for A STM and our standards development process, and I wondered if you could each take a turn commenting [00:23:00] on the standards development process at A STM and how does it facilitate these standards and how does it help the overall effort? I imagine you have more experience with it than anyone, both of you.

Julia Farber (23:11):

I think what's really special about A STM is that it is open and available for all kinds of audiences to participate in. It is one of those organizations that because of the robustness and the trust that people have in this organization, you're able to really wrestle with some really challenging [00:23:30] market problems. And then you're able to put forth solutions that will help people understand commonalities, interoperability questions, test methodologies. And so really the thing about this specific process is everyone has a voice and it is a global, so everyone's invited to the table. So again, you are invited. We welcome you get an opportunity to have such a high influence on what happens in the marketplace and to really have a say in various solutions [00:24:00] and guidance documents that really help people understand how to move forward on big challenges. So come on in, get involved. That's what I'll say. Mark, what do you want to say?

Mark Lavach (24:11):

Alright, you follow that? No, I can because this is now the technical guy talking, right? You talk about A STM, it's process and what it really means in terms of safety and innovation, right? It's a technically rigorous process. The development of the test methodology, it's validated. [00:24:30] We ask for people to run and rerun these tests on multiple materials, on multiple labs. So what comes out of A STM you can trust? Okay, it's been developed with rigor. The method's been evaluated. We talk about safety. If you look at the history of standardization, it first dealt with safety, the safety of railroad ties. In 18 98, 1 of the first standards developed, right, builds consumer trusts. [00:25:00] To quote Led Zeppelin, the song remains the same. Okay? It is the same today. We have methods that look at safety. Standardization world is also dynamic. Standards change, they're revised. It results in better products for the consumer, better trust for the consumer. All of this is going to go on in the sustainability space. A STM has a tagline that [00:25:30] we've embody, which is helping our world work better and be it for the plastic products of today, or the reimagined and redesigned products of tomorrow. That's effectively what we in D 20 and the rest of ATM are trying to do. We're trying to help our world work better.

Dave Walsh (25:48):

I really did mean it that we were getting to the end of our time, but as Mark said, we have barely scratched the surface. And we could have talked for another hour, I think. But I wanted to thank you both very much for being here today and for taking the time to [00:26:00] give us your expertise and share your knowledge with us. Thank you.

Julia Farber (26:03):

Absolutely, Dave. Thanks for having us.

Mark Lavach (26:04):

Thanks. Thanks for having us.

Dave Walsh (26:09):

And now it's time for our standard spotlight segment with S Essence content editor, JP Urban.

JP Ervin (26:18):

Do you think you have a great sense of taste, or maybe it's just the opposite, and you couldn't tell the difference between paprika and parsley if everything depended on it? Did you know that some people actually make a living from their sense of taste? [00:26:30] While it might sound like a dream come true to work as a professional snack, food or beer taster, taste testing isn't all fun and games taste testing is just one part of the field of sensory evaluation. A scientific field used to recall, measure, analyze, and explain human reactions to sensation. Sensory evaluation is commonly used in food and beverage science for product research and quality control studies. But sensory science impacts a broad range of industries. Sensory science is used to evaluate the smell of deodorant, the taste of toothpaste, the feel of an automobile's, [00:27:00] interior, or even the potentially annoying sounds made by a bag of chips.


You may be familiar with the use of consumers on panels who try unfamiliar products and are able to speak to their own experiences. Consumers are important to the field as they can potentially reveal the feelings of a broader target audience and speak to how non-experts experience a product. However, an equally important part of sensory science is the use of trained assessors. Trained assessors cultivate their knowledge and sharpen their sense of taste, often developing the ability to detect minute differences between products. [00:27:30] Trained assessors become adept at differentiating spearmint, peppermint, and menthol. They learn to sense contamination or staleness, and they even sometimes learn to identify flavors by chemical names such as isoamyl acetate. In other words, banana flavor. During training, assessors are often subjected to a battery of tests, even being asked to consume a range of sweeteners to identify the difference or drink heavy cream to sharpen their sense of mouth fuel. And yes, they sometimes have to directly smell someone's armpits. ADMs [00:28:00] Committee on Sensory evaluation. E 18 has more than 200 members, including many industry professionals and experts who specialize in sensory methods. The committee continues to push boundaries and respond to new developments in the field. Among other things, the committee's recent work has been focused on developing standards for peer sensory evaluation, refining a manual for working with trained sensory assessors, and even accounting for cultural differences in taste.

Dave Walsh (28:28):

If you want to learn more about any of the standards discussed [00:28:30] in this episode, visit for all the latest. Thanks for joining us, and if you enjoyed the show, remember to like and subscribe, so you never miss an episode. I'm Dave Walsh, and this has been Standards Impact presented by A STM International.