Resource Efficiency in Plastics Processing
The fifth 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
The resources of the world are finite but the demands being placed on them are increasing rapidly. These demands will increase even more rapidly as the nations of the Far East aspire to and attain the living standards of the West. For example, it has been predicted that the amount of polymer processing machinery required in China over the next 10 years will equal that produced in the West since the plastics industry first started. These changes will inevitably require huge amounts of raw materials and both the resource depletion rate and prices increase. Polymer supply is a world market and a buoyant market in the Far East always translates into rising prices in the West.
The challenge in the long-term will be to control prices by planning for scarcity. This will mean reducing the usage of virgin materials and to increasing the usage of recycled materials. Cleaner design and resource efficiency will become the essential tools for continued success and survival.
‘Use of recyclates can save material costs, but the company had to invest initially to stimulate post-consumer structures for material collection and processing.’
Ford Motor Company (Europe)
Many materials currently used in products cannot be recycled and create significant environmental impacts during their production. A good starting point for assessing material suitability is to prepare a list of the materials used in the product. These can then be investigated to find alternatives with lower costs and environmental impacts. Suitable materials might:
- Be recycled or contain recycled materials.
- Be obtained from suppliers that are environmentally conscious.
- Be capable of recycling at the end-of-life stage.
Tip: Suggestions for suitable alternative materials or potential opportunities for recovery, re-use and recycling of materials should be sought from suppliers and customers.
Tip: As well as looking at the types of materials used in the product, it is important to look at the quantities and diversity of materials used. There may be opportunities to redesign the product to reduce the weight and thickness of components or to use one recyclable material for the entire product.
Examination of current materials must be ruthless in the search for reduced cost and environmental impact. In Germany products made from recycled materials can often attract a price premium, in the future this may become the norm rather than the exception. The markets are changing and plastics processing must change to meet the consumer demands.
The first target for improving costs and environmental impacts should always be to use less material. This reduces materials costs, resource use, transportation and the amount of waste for disposal when the product reaches end-of-life.
Reduce the materials used in the product by:
- Analysing how the main product function is delivered and whether it can be delivered with less material or even without the material at all. This can often be achieved, without compromising quality, through a detailed understanding the product function and improvements in manufacturing technology.
- Retaining the current form and reducing material use by thinner sections or reduced numbers of fixings.
- Reducing the part count by combining parts.
- Using the product design team to identify areas where material can be used more efficiently.
The process of lightweighting or dematerialisation not only brings environmental benefits, but also reduces manufacturing and transport costs and increases profits. A lightweighting project at Coca-Cola Enterprises Ltd produced a new can with a reduced end diameter. This saved over £1 per thousand cans and £2.3 million/year in the UK alone.
‘A focus on lightweighting and materials selection in packaging is essential to maintain profitability.’
Britvic Soft Drinks
The second target is to reduce the environmental impact of the materials used in both the product and the production process. This will reduce the costs and environmental impacts associated with the product life cycle.
Reduce the environmental impact of the materials used in the product by:
- Using renewable materials and recyclates instead of virgin materials to reduce resource depletion and create opportunities and markets for using waste, thus diverting it from disposal.
- Using materials that have less environmental impact during their production, e.g. using less energy or causing less pollution, will reduce the product’s environmental impact and can also reduce the need for expensive controls during production.
- Eliminating or replacing hazardous substances from both the product and the production process. This will reduce the costs and environmental impacts associated with the product life cycle.
Examples of reducing the impact are:
The development team at IBM has successfully replaced virgin polymer in the design of an existing high volume product with 100% recycled content resin, without compromising production.
- The Volvo Car Corporation (VCC) has worked with its suppliers and contractors to eliminate hazardous materials in its vehicles or vehicle components. VCC has developed a ‘black’ list of substances whose use is banned and a ‘grey’ list of substances whose use should be limited.
- The Ericsson Corporation developed and used a materials declaration tool to help its suppliers document the material content of its products.
These examples are described in more detail in GG295 (see More Information box).
In the future, the raw materials used will define the cost of the product even more than today. Incorrect materials choices will increase not only the initial cost but also the cost at all stages of the life cycle.
The correct materials choice will only be possible by knowing the impact and costs of the materials used over the complete product life cycle. This can be achieved by:
- Collecting information on possible material substitutes that are:
- Less hazardous.
- From renewable or recycled sources.
- Produced with less environmental impact.
- Identifying materials databases that contain information on environmental impacts.
- Requiring suppliers of materials and components to provide detailed materials declarations as part of their supply contract.
Tip: Use a formal materials declaration list to collect the information.
Tip: Initially it will be difficult to obtain information about every part of every component but as the requirements become more common it will become easier.
Tip: Ask suppliers to provide proof of any assertions they make.
Planning for scarcity and reduced environmental impact involves transforming the marketplace. The winners will be companies who manage the transformation and the losers will be those taken by surprise by the changes.
- Raw material shortages, caused by both resource depletion and growing demand, will increase prices of both products and utilities.
- Competition and price for recycled raw materials will increase as demand and usage increases.
- EMS will become mandatory for manufacturers.
- Compliance with environmental design standards (e.g. IPP and WEEE) will become legislative requirement.
- Development and implementation of company strategy for purchase of recycled, renewable materials.
- Development and implementation of company strategy for use of renewable energy.
- Long term and sustainable corporate environmental plans.
- Full implementation of cleaner design principles.
- Work with customers to define real product needs.
- Work with customers to reduce the amount and number of materials used.
- Work with customers to remove hazardous materials from the products.
- Work with customers to introduce recycled and renewable materials.
- Work with customers to gain acceptance of new life cycle of all products.
- Promote and sell environmental benefits to the marketplace.
- Introduction of cleaner technology.
- Winners and losers.
- Transformation of the marketplace.
- 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).
- Environmental Management Systems for the plastics industry (GG251).
- Finding and reducing waste in plastics processing (GG277).
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
Part 4: End-of-Life - Minimising Outputs
Part 5: Raw Materials - Minimising Inputs (This Section)
Part 6: Distribution - The Essential Link
Download the complete series as an Adobe Acrobat file.
Last edited: 11/03/10
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