The Promise of plastics: How good could it get?

Amit Paul
Amit Paul
Dec 16, 2019 · 5 min read

This is the second part in a 4 part series looking at Plastics from the perspective of an industry insider. We explore just how good it could get from a utopian perspective and then check in with reality to see where we are in relation to it. This series of though pieces aim to challenge the consensus story told about the group of materials that plastics is and to introduce some complexity into the topic.

Is this the rising or setting sun for plastics? The Author hopes that the future for plastics holds a sustainable approach to the materials that capture the promise they could hold. What is that promise exactly? Find out below.

Utopia — or is it?

Imagine if we had materials that could be tailor made, every aspect of their properties optimized for a specific application. Scientists could conjure materials with desired properties out of thin air, similar to putting Lego pieces together.

These materials would have next to no environmental footprint. The resources to produce these materials would not require large areas of land to grow or lots of water, nutrients or time to come to be. They would be designed in a lab, produced in a reactor and then manufactured into anything and everything imaginable.

All the scientists would need are a few stray carbon and hydrogen atoms as building blocks of these materials. They could be sourced from bio-based feedstock, waste streams, space debris or they could be grown. Imagine that we could choose to make these materials so stable that they would last for 1000 years, or to just dissolve in a compost within a week.

Envision an industry that has tight enough control on their manufacturing process that they produce thousands of tons of these materials while only losing a miniscule fraction, single kgs of it per year. Imagine an industry that molds these materials into the most flagrant, fantastic creations while ensuring that every single scrap, shard of material and extra product is collected from the ground up, and directed into new products in their factories. Picture a process that is immensely energy efficient since the material is molded at much lower temperatures than say steel or aluminum. Allow yourself to conceptualize materials that are more durable, lower weight, lower cost, and without restriction on use or geopolitical implications.

Finally, imagine that at the end of life of these materials, the supply chain is closed. Block chain technology enables exact traceability and information on the contents of parts. The materials are collected, sorted, mechanically recycled up 6 or 7 times in suitable applications until they have degraded to a point where the industry puts them back into chemical recycling plants. Here, the materials are disintegrated into molecules and re-purposed into virgin grade materials again for another cycle of use.

Imagine that the only new input of resources needed from year to year was to account for the increased consumption and from whatever was lost or consumed.

Does this sound good? This could be the promise of plastics — if we do it right.

Reality check: The industry is doing better then one would think…

So, where are we in relation to this utopia? Well, we have a lot of the technology and chemistry available. Companies are investing in exchanging the petrochemical base of many of our most used plastics to bio-based feedstock. Some grades are already commercial. But to be fair, with the current system the petrochemical based version of the plastics typically has a lower environmental footprint compared to their “natural” counterparts. (I already cautioned in Part 1 that bio-based does not automatically equal good.)

Resin manufacturers have extremely tight control over loss of pellets. One factory that I know of, with a capacity of several 1000 tons of material, has a production loss of only 50 kgs per year. And the industry launched and executed “Operation Clean Sweep” where the ambition was to completely eliminate lost pellets in the industry. Molders have spent years optimizing their machines on cycle times and energy use. They have been milling and reusing their scrap for a long time. The scrap they cannot use themselves is sold or given to other companies in the industry as raw material.

Originally the within industry recycling was done to reduce costs, nowadays its also done for the environment.

In other words, we are doing pretty well on the industry side. Not that there isn’t room for further improvement, but many of the behavioral and investment boxes are already ticked.

… but when its put to use the story is different

The plastics industry is part of the manufacturing industry. The more that’s manufactured the better — for the industry. Frankly, I believe we consume too many of these materials. Because they are so cheap, we consume more.

Companies design with unit cost in mind, some design for pieces to break (planned obsolescence) so that you will have to replace it sooner than what would be necessary. Marketers have honed their skills in creating wanting and a fear of what not having will say about you as a person.

We are not using the right materials in the right places. Composites, fillers, hazardous additives, laminates, coatings, crosslinkers are often used out of habit rather than thoughtful consideration — these additives make recycling and reuse significantly harder, if not impossible. Additionally, collection rates of used materials are terrible.

Even in a nation like Sweden where recycling requires very little effort, only 40% of all plastic packaging makes it back to the sorting plant. Consumers simply do not have the energy, or inclination, to put the empty packaging in the right ‘trash’ bin.

The main inefficiencies relate to how the materials are used. How we consume and design. What we as the consumer demand. Remember plastic is just a tool that can be used.

If we want to get to a circular or sustainable society, we need behavioral changes, better designs and tweaks to the existing technology as well as new technology.

If we just optimized our existing technology, we would get far. New molecules and materials that we know very little about could be great, but there is also risk connected to them. An intelligent person once said that there are known unkowns and unkown unkowns, one has to be aware of both.

I think the recent push to label our current situation a climate emergency offers a helpful implication for how on could reason. In an emergency you take what you have and make it work, because it’s the fastest way to deal with the emergency. That needs to happen in parallel with the paradigm shift that will be new molecules, new feedstock, recycling of all products (not just packaging).

Let’s not do new because it’s new, let’s make sure we do new because it’s actually better.

Remember the takeaway I want you to have from this article series: What is sustainable? Actually, it depends.

[This is article 2 of 4 on plastics and sustainability. Please go back and read article 1 if you want more. In article 3 we’ll scratch the surface of what’s going wrong today.]

Big thanks to Anna Kargaard who has helped me with editing and getting these articles readable.

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