Much has been said about the need to “repackage” HVAC and the skilled trades: rebranding it as a tech-forward occupation, a stepping stone to entrepreneurship, an overlooked opportunity for women and minorities. But it’s also time to repackage HVAC in a different sense. I’m talking about the actual physical packaging for HVAC tools, equipment, and supplies. And it’s not just me saying this. The entire single-use plastics industry is staring down new regulations at the state and local level, and as a user of plastics in packaging materials, HVAC is getting caught up as well.
Single-use plastic bans aren’t new. Whether or not paper straws are disintegrating at the bottom of coffee cups in your community, we’ve all heard about the plastic straw and plastic bag bans on the news. The argument is straightforward: These plastics take hundreds, maybe even a thousand years, to break down and they’re not recyclable.
What’s different now from 10 years ago is who’s being targeted to prevent the pollution.
“The big shift here, from straws to single-use plastics, is the definition of who falls in scope,” said Chris Forth, vice president of regulatory, codes, and environmental affairs at Johnson Controls, who first told me about the HVAC side of the bans at the Women in HVACR conference late last year. “It used to be that the regulations kind of focused on the plastic manufacturer … the bags, the straws, and the other one is Styrofoam, which is extruded polystyrene or EPS; that's really bad, because that doesn't degrade in landfills. What’s different now is you’ve got individual states, most notably Maine and California, where their legislative definition of who is responsible now is catching HVAC in its scope.”
In other words, if an HVAC manufacturer like Johnson Controls ships an a/c unit to Maine with Styrofoam around the unit, stretch film around the box, and those plastic “bumpers” in the corner of the box that keep the unit from jostling around during shipping, the manufacturer is now on the hook — not just the company that makes the packaging.
While the U.S. has not banned any single-use plastic at the federal level, eight or 10 states have recently passed such regulations. The goal of these regulations is to get manufacturers to use packaging materials that are biodegradable, like wood, cardboard, or paper — or if they do use plastics, to use less of them or use plastics that are more recyclable. Regulators are going after big companies with lots of resources, Forth said. They’re having manufacturers pay into extended producer responsibility organizations, or EPRs, that work on behalf of the city or state.
Packaging strategies are an issue for the manufacturers to handle, but the whole HVAC industry is likely to feel the effects. For starters, contractors should brace themselves for more price hikes as manufacturers pass along this new cost of doing business.
“I think it certainly holds the potential,” Forth said, “especially with these EPR organizations. There’ll be a direct relationship. If the cost is increased to produce a product, that cost has to go to the product.”
JCI is already updating its packaging materials to comply with stricter standards. Contractors might notice this when opening their shipments. There may also be less packaging to deal with on a jobsite.
“They'll start seeing more recyclable content, they’ll start seeing more wood or paper products that they can recycle,” Forth said. “But because it's an individual state, or in some cases, individual cities, they may have different jobsite requirements to deal with impact.”
So, just as with refrigerant bans and natural gas bans, contractors are going to have to keep abreast of state and local law as far as jobsite cleanup: what can be tossed, what must be recycled. There may also be incentives, like five cents/bag to return reusable plastic bags, that contractors can take advantage of.
“Ultimately, what the cities and states want is to change behavior: ‘Hey, if you fill up my landfill or it clogs my sewer systems, I'm going to charge you for it.’ That's what the EPRs are set up to do: to help cover that cost,” Forth said. “There's a lot of benefits to that, and I think that will drive it. What we don't like is all this patchwork.”
With the caveat that no one wants to predict what’s going to happen in Washington, Forth thinks we’ll see some federal legislation this topic “in the not too distant future” — maybe from this Congress.
“It would certainly make sense to have a national standard versus individual states,” he said. “JCI would be supportive of that, just like we support recycling, recovering refrigerants, and the same thing could apply to plastics.”
I am one of those people who recycles everything and drinks coffee from a washable glass straw, so I’m with Chris here: This feels like a step forward. I just hope it doesn’t play too much havoc with the paper products supply chain. We need some of that to keep the presses rolling at ACHR NEWS.
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