Technological watch

Perspective: Plastics manufacturers — a surprising contribution to sustainability

Plastics allow us to produce outcomes in volume with remarkable certainty and economy. Without question, plastics designers and manufacturers have been a major contributor to one of the most innovative periods in history.

And yet, using plastics and sustainability in the same sentence may seem like a contradiction. After all, we tend to think of "sustainability" as our capacity to coexist with our environment in an on-going basis. Conversely, it may be argued that "plastic materials" exploit resources that are difficult to recycle or replace.

While both statements may be accurate, it is also true that the plastics industry has helped many products reduce harmful emissions and pollutants.

I do not discount the challenges we face. Single-use plastics are often tossed in less than 10 minutes with little regard to what happens next. Flexible plastic packaging is particularly troubling. Of the 12 billion pounds produced last year, less than 10 percent was recycled. Plastic bags? Only 1.7 percent. For all plastics, 17.6 billion pounds find their way to our marine environments every year — often contributed to by riverways that move litter into our lakes and oceans. Clearly, as plastics manufacturers (and consumers) we can do better. But despite some that would point a finger, I would also argue — plastics innovation and their vast contributions have delivered exponentially.

Roughly 40 years ago, the first plastic wheel trim began to replace traditional metal hubcaps. As processes evolved to produce finishes that looked like metal and chrome, countless other parts began to be replaced with innovative designs in plastic — with a cumulative effect of sustained weight loss. Bumpers and grill plates are largely made of plastic today — replacing heavy traditional iron. A car or truck can save 5-7 percent percent in fuel usage with every 10 percent in weight reduction.

In addition to the obvious weight savings/mileage benefit, plastics have given designers and engineers new ways to make vehicles sleeker to roll through the wind with less effort — further contributing to higher efficiencies.

I once designed a hand-held impact wrench that was so heavy, users could become injured. By replacing the cast aluminum housing with a composite (glass-filled nylon), the weight of the tool dropped dramatically, and ease of use soared.

Plastics also help our homes run more efficiently — protecting us from the elements, caulking, insulation, and window shades keep us safe and warm (or cool). Even our water flows through plastic pipes now — with greater reliability, safety, and lower cost.

As products become more reliable, plastics have helped to reduce how often we discard them. Everyone knows the best way to preserve food is to store it in a plastic container. The same is true for medicines — shelf life is greatly extended by plastics that protect contents from damaging oxygen and moisture. By extension, these innovations have contributed to our growing life expectancy.

The list goes on and on. The point is, as we seek solutions in sustainability, do not discount the technological advances that are possible because of plastics. We may discover the answer to cleaning things up includes a participatory role by the plastics industry itself!

No one wants to go for a walk where plastic bags and empty water bottles rest among the leaves. And none of us want our fish to live in an ocean that's been treated like a dumping ground for waste that has no reasonable way of breaking down safely in the waters. And yet, we must face the reality that these are issues we must address.

With such a vast wealth of resources and incredible resilience, who could have predicted the earth would show signs of venerability so quickly?

In the mid-1700s, (the beginning of the Industrial Revolution) the entire world had about 640 million people. By 1960, the global population had exploded to about 3 billion. Today, we share the planet with more than 7.7 billion people. Some estimate it will peak around 11 billion in the year 2100.

Imagine – when Jesus walked the earth, there were 420 million people. It took 1,750 years to grow to 640 million. Barely 350 years later, we are projected to have 11 billion people all drawing from the same resources!

This staggering growth is impressive. Yet, even at 7.7 billion, we represent just 0.01 percent of all living things. Feel better? Don't. We achieved this at great cost. Humans have literally caused the loss of 83 percent of all wild mammals and more than 50 percent of all plant life – so far.

In fact, new studies show our "progress" has permanently eliminated more than 800 species and threatens more than 26,000 more with extinction today – mostly from loss of habitat. No one knows what the long-term effects will be on the planet as we continue to eradicate thousands of plants and animals from our planet and ravage others to sustain our appetite for growth and survival.

I have two girls who could possibly see 2100 – and I expect it will be a very different world than the one we live in today. I hope for the better, but if we continue to be cavalier about the mark we leave behind, we could very well be leaving them a world that cannot recover from our trespasses.

I certainly do not proclaim to have all the answers, but awareness is a start. From awareness, we can make observations, seek solutions, and decide to make better choices. I would be lying if I said I do not enjoy driving my car or traveling by plane or living comfortably in a home with air conditioning — all clear contributors to the problem. I chose a career in product development, manufacturing and yes, plastics — which is arguably another contributor to the problem. But you would be hard pressed to live in a world without them!

And so, if humans are to ever reach a point of sustainability as inhabitants of this amazing planet, it will start with awareness. 7.7 billion people. That's having an impact! Where does the plastics industry fit in? We need materials to mold that can serve their utilitarian purpose and degrade harmlessly and predictably when discarded. We need clearer instructions and infrastructure that gives consumers confidence that their well-intended efforts are making a difference. And we need designers and engineers who are mindful of their own carbon footprint as they set out to create new and innovative products that will undoubtedly change our lives going forward.

I meet with companies around the country who make their product(s) from plastic and I am pleased to report, these concerns surface quickly. People want to do the right thing. They want to know more about sustainability practices, about plant derived bioplastics, degradable and non-degradable biopolymers, regrinding and recyclability. And, they're excited to share what they have learned.

In a recent meeting, a company shared with me how an entire software program designed for them by a university in Spain could measure its carbon footprint when taking a product to market. The level of detail was stunning — taking into account everything from the raw materials required to build the molds, to the energy it took to create them, to the water, electricity and fossil fuels that would be depleted. In the end, a "Sustainability Index Number" was assigned and a committee would evaluate whether to proceed or not. Major decisions were made simply by raising awareness.

Coalitions of plastic manufacturers, retail giants and brands are participating in programs to divert tons of plastics from landfills for recycling. Companies like Dow, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble, Nestle Purina and Target and more are stepping up to support new initiatives and technologies.

At home, our kids are legitimately nervous and anxious about the news they hear and read about. We are leaving them with a very different planet than it was even 50 years ago – and there are no easy answers. It is not a time to be complacent and look the other way. Somehow, we need to inspire our children to go forth with courage, strength, conviction and curiosity. Very likely, it will not be just one solution, but many approaches that will need to be employed if we are to reverse the damage we have done.

Stories about climate change can be spooky. Many are designed that way and they can make you feel guilty, hopeless and dispirited. But we can't all walk to work or grow our own food — or stop using plastic. What we can do is recognize how we position ourselves to contribute and think about how we might act differently. We can use our resources to do good. In my case, raising awareness, learning more, and encouraging manufacturers to include sustainability in their thinking as they proceed to innovate and present solutions for their particular expertise — consumer, industrial, medical, etc.

In fact, it's beginning to feel like a movement. Whole countries are getting on board with their own unique approaches. By 2045, Sweden's ambitious goal is to be 100 percent zero-emissions — including factories. Ireland has committed to plant 440 million trees (22 million/year for 20 years). And in the U.S., despite tying for second in the world for carbon dioxide emissions per capita from fossil fuel combustion (Saudi Arabian citizens are No. 1), we are still among the top 10 countries doing the most to protect the environment. More than 25 percent of U.S. territory is protected reserves with limited public access like national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, and areas managed for sustainable use. Additionally, only 3.3 percent of the U.S. population are exposed to unsafe levels of air pollution. (sadly, many countries exposure to unsafe air is 100 percent)

So, rather than lose faith, I choose to be optimistic. It seems to me that with 7.7 billion people as a resource, we ought to be able to change the narrative! We tear down forests and call it "progress", but why not build forests and call that "progress"? Now, more than ever, regardless of your skill set or industry — we need to be part of the solution.

Christopher Gardner is a business development executive and industrial designer. Reach him at [email protected].

Publication date: 21/01/2021

Plastics News - packaging


This project has received funding from the Bio Based Industries Joint Undertaking under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 837761.