Resource Efficiency in Plastics Processing
The third in a series of Worksheets by Jonathan Churchman-Davies and Dr. Robin Kent for Envirowise on Resource Efficiency in the Plastics Industry.
UK Government Environment and Energy Helpline 0800 585 794
In the medium term, the challenge will be to reduce the cost of ownership of products. Many current consumer products (such as cars, white goods, brown goods and windows) use more energy and resources during their usage stage than during the manufacture stage. This is even true of many industrial products e.g. running an electric motor for around 1000 hours costs as much in electricity as the capital cost of the motor.
Reducing the cost of ownership requires an additional consideration in design - the new issue is ‘design for use’ where the focus is on the best use of plastics to meet the user requirements and prolong the life of the product (and the resources embedded in it). Planned obsolescence is no longer an acceptable strategy, if it ever was in the long-term.
Consumers are increasingly aware of the resource efficiency of competing products and the ‘energy rating’ of products from light bulbs to refrigerators is increasingly being used by consumers to inform and guide their choices. This consumer pressure is driving the development of better quality or more efficient products with reduced running costs.
Some processors will think that this is not their problem, they will see themselves as ‘converters’, but this will not be sufficient for future survival. Successful processors are increasingly producing complete assemblies to add value - cost in use is becoming a key indicator for success in any market. Any processor who ignores this is not planning for the future. The good news is that the unique properties of plastics give them exceptional advantages in ‘cost in use’ calculations compared to traditional materials.
In the medium term, cleaner design can be used optimise the resource efficiency of products throughout their life cycle and to reduce the environmental impacts of products and the manufacturing process.
It is important to look beyond simply what the product is designed to do. Information is needed from consumers about what they actually do with a product, i.e. their ‘product habits’. One example of ‘product habit’ is to leave a kettle to boil and then return later to reboil the hot water - a process that uses a lot of energy that design can help to reduce. Feedback from suppliers and/or customers can also reveal opportunities for reducing the functions or parts of the product or packaging that customers regard as unnecessary, e.g. surplus modules, features and attachments.
Many consumer products (such as cars, white goods, brown goods and windows) use more energy and resources during their usage stage than during manufacture.
Functional and usage analysis of the product will become a key task and existing techniques such as Value Engineering and customer surveys (now part of ISO 9000) can be used to produce a Product Design Specification based on real ‘critical’ and ‘desirable’ functions rather than a design based simply on drawings and materials specifications.
Designers need to use cleaner design as an incentive and a tool to reduce the total resources used during the usage stage of the product life, to tune the product design to the real needs and usage patterns of the consumer and to increase the value added for the end-user.
Designers need to start to focus on new issues such as:
- Using fewer resources in use - Designing the product so that its use and maintenance requires less materials, consumables, energy and other resources to reduce the adverse impacts of the product and the costs of using the product, e.g. electricity and water consumption.
- Causing less pollution and waste in use - Designing the product so that it causes less pollution, produces fewer emissions, has less waste and has reduced environmental impact during use.
- Optimising functionality and service life - Optimising functionality to reduce the need for additional products or resources to achieve the same task and making the product more efficient in use.
- Giving the product a longer service life - This will increase repeat sales and will also require fewer products to be manufactured, thereby reducing the impacts associated with product production, delivery and disposal.
- Using customer surveys as an integral part of the design process - These can identify the important areas of the product’s efficiency and whether it has any redundant functions that can be removed to reduce production and usage costs.
- Considering maintenance issues - Reducing maintenance or making it easier to carry out will prolong the product life and improve the intrinsic value to the consumer.
In the future the issue of resource efficiency during the usage stage must become part of the Product Design Specification and part of the basic design of any product.
Some opportunities to reduce resource consumption and environmental impacts during the product’s use can be identified during initial product research (see GG294). Other general measures to improve resource efficiency and to reduce waste during use include:
- Providing instructions on how to use the product efficiently. Never assume that users will automatically use the product in the most efficient way.
- Fitting better controls (automatic or manual) to optimise energy and material use without user intervention.
- Improving the functionality and service life of the product through more durable design concepts such as making it easier to repair and service and making it adaptable to different tasks, related either by the technology or by the function.
- Asking customers to rank the product’s efficiency and the various functions.
- Designing the product so that it lasts longer. A good place to start to identify weaknesses is to look at records of complaints and reasons for return.
- Improving the insulation on hot or cold elements.
Although such measures can sometimes (but not always) increase the product’s purchase price, the user inevitably achieves long-term benefits from reduced energy and resource consumption. The rise of European Union labelling schemes on items such as refrigerators and washing machines are making users more aware of the lifetime benefits of efficient products. These benefits can form a core part of the actions to improve market share and profitability.
The issues of cleaner design and resource efficiency in manufacturing and use are largely internal - most of the improvements required are driven by internal costs and the need to reduce these. In the medium and long-term future this will change. The major drivers will become largely external and will be legislation and the cost results of the legislation. Legislation is becoming a tool to internalise the social costs of products that were previously ignored by manufacturers. An example of this is the issue of ‘plastic bag taxation’ to reduce litter - litter is primarily a social problem that is external to the producers but the legislation in Ireland internalises this problem to the manufacturers and users. It is not going to get any easier.
- Increased profitability.
- Continued growth of ‘push-pull’ taxes and legislative instruments such as the Climate Change Levy and Landfill Taxes.
- Increased market demands (from both customer and ultimate end-user) for improved and documented environmental performance.
- Introduction of ‘Integrated Product Policy’ requirements from EU.
- Improve the design process and outputs to reduce the whole life cost of products, particularly the usage costs.
- Improve the manufacturing process to reduce the whole life cost of products, particularly the usage costs.
- Integrate potential usage costs into the product costing calculations.
- Design products to be resource efficient during the usage stage.
- Train product designers in:
- Design for Manufacture.
- Design for Assembly & Disassembly.
- Life Cycle Analysis and similar techniques.
- Implement cleaner design as formal part of design process.
- Reduce manufacturing impacts and costs through cleaner design and technology.
- Improved focus on customer and consumer needs for reduced cost-in-use.
- Achievement of real cost savings from improved resource efficiency at the design stage.
- Adoption of clean technology to give real cost savings from reduced design and manufacturing environmental impacts.
- Cleaner Technology - An essential guide for industry (GG288).
- Cleaner Product Design - An introduction for industry (GG294).
- Cleaner Product Design - Examples from industry (GG295).
- Cleaner Product Design - A practical approach (GG296).
Available free from the Environment and Energy Helpline (0800 585 794) or can be downloaded from this site.
The 'Resource Efficiency' series is designed to give plastics processors a route map to the future for the plastics industry. The series is:
Part 1: Resource Efficiency
Part 2: Manufacturing - Targeting Efforts
Part 3: Use - Optimising Usage (This Section)
Part 4: End-of-Life - Minimising Outputs
Part 5: Raw Materials - Minimising Inputs
Part 6: Distribution - The Essential Link
Download the complete series as an Adobe Acrobat file.
Last edited: 11/03/10
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