Why innovation around plastic can benefit the environment

Dr Anthea Blackburn, senior scientist for catalyst development at Econic Technologies, discusses how adapting the way plastics are produced to become more environmentally friendly, we can help reduce the impact this key material has on the planet.

That humans have had a profound effect on the environment is beyond doubt. As the media rallies against plastic pollution, it comes as no surprise that this material is facing the brunt of the blame for the current environmental crisis. Those who have seen the images of marine life sharing their habitats with bottles, bags and other plastic products will be minded to agree.

These views are not totally misguided. Of the 6,300 million metric tonnes of plastic created since 1950, almost 80% has ended up in landfills or the oceans. And so it is understandable that there have been calls to ban the material entirely.

The issue is that, in our modern lives, plastic is abundant and there is no simple solution, no matter how many coffee drinkers switch to reusable cups. There is no denying that consumer demand and our attitude to disposing of materials need to change, and whilst our concern over single-use materials is commendable, a ban on all types of plastic is simply unfeasible.

Plastics feature constantly throughout our everyday lives, and people may not realise just how much they rely upon the material. But plastic is not synonymous with single use; and even ‘bad’ plastics, like polypropylene and polyethylene (frequently found in disposable bottles and plastic packaging) are often used in clothing, right from our trainers to thermal base layers, and typically feature in industrial machine components and cars, as well as the reusable plastic containers people are turning to in a bid to save the planet.

With the attitude that ‘all plastics are bad’ gaining traction in the media, it’s easy to forget the many advantages of plastics; it is the vast range of applications that means a total ban on all plastic is simply inconceivable. Instead, we would benefit by focusing on our poor use of plastic, and our tendency to consume and dispose of product.f

Following several high-profile campaigns, a change in society’s mindset is already in motion. Consumers are becoming ever more conscientious in their use of products and number of multinational corporations, such as Coca Cola and Ikea, are taking action to ensure their plastics are recyclable or compostable and include increasing proportions of recycled plastic. The Government is also committing to reducing plastic use, from the ban on microbeads in early 2018, to the announcement in the Autumn Budget of a tax on plastic packaging containing less than 30% of recycled materials.

Nevertheless, there is still much to be done. To move forwards, plastics need to be made as environmentally friendly as possible, by considering the impact of raw materials used, the production process of plastics manufacture, and whether the final material can be recycled.

One plastic that is present in our day-to-day lives more than we may expect is polyurethane. As the third most widely used plastic in the world, polyurethanes can be found in the adhesives that prevent our shoes from falling apart; the rigid foam panels that insulate our homes to reduce heat loss by up to 60%; and the coatings that extend the longevity of our floors and vehicles. The multifaceted benefits of polyurethane make it the material of choice for many applications.

When considering the energy-intensive production process of polyurethanes, one might believe that using biodegradable and natural products is the obvious transition. However, replacing polyurethane insulation with a less carbon intensive material, such as cork glass fibre or mineral wool would actually require twice the material to provide the same level of insulation – not to mention the strain that producing these natural alternatives has on agricultural resources.

Producing polyurethanes has historically been reliant upon petrochemical-based feedstocks, which make up the polyols inherent in the structure of polyurethanes. Such polyols are often produced from epoxides, using methods such as oxidation or hydrochlorination, which have a large carbon footprint. But what if we could find an alternative feedstock? What if carbon – so widely maligned – could be utilised?

After all, atmospheric CO2 is abundant. Thanks to developments in catalytic science, it is possible to use CO2 as a feedstock in the production of plastics, significantly reducing the environmental impact of the material. Importantly, it is possible to produce polyurethane using CO2 as a raw material on an industrial scale. A number of industries have been taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint on the world, and the plastics industry can now also follow suit.

Adopting CO2 as a raw material is a win-win situation: for every tonne of epoxide replaced by CO2, three tonnes of CO2 would be avoided or utilised. Polyols using CO2, known as polyethercarbonates, are increasingly becoming the focus of a number of companies aiming to reduce their impact upon the Earth. At Econic, we have been able to take this approach a step further: our catalyst technologies allow for the bespoke incorporation of CO2 into polyols at industrially relevant temperatures and pressures, thereby allowing polyol producers to tailor their products for their downstream polyurethane users’ needs.

On top of this, incorporating CO2 into polyols also offers significant advantages to the product: the subsequent rigid foams have improved flame retardance properties, whilst coatings, adhesives, sealants and elastomers show increases in their chemical, temperature and hydrolytic resistances. Economically, waste CO2 is currently, and is expected to remain, considerably cheaper than its petrochemical-based alternatives. Indisputable advantages can be achieved in all aspects of the production of these green polyols, benefits which are in turn passed through to the wider polyurethane industry and their consumers.

There is no doubt that the plastics crisis is a serious issue, and that we need to encourage a change in attitude towards the single-use mindset of society. But we have to keep in mind the environmental and economic benefits that plastics offer, and use innovation to find a solution. By adapting the way plastics are produced to become more environmentally friendly, we can help reduce the impact this key material has on the planet.

Anthea Blackburn

Anthea Blackburn

Scientist for catalyst development at Econic Technologies.

One thought on “Why innovation around plastic can benefit the environment

  • 7th December 2018 at 11:44 pm
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    This does not negate the fact that polyurethane off-gasses poisonous gasses that are getting into our bodies and the environment. If a similar process could be applied to a different process, however, that would be great.

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