Deep thought in the land of polymers
At a time when everyone, politicians, manufacturers and citizens are reflecting on ways to improve production, reduce waste and preserve the environment, the concept of circular economy has emerged as a clear contender. It aims to uncouple economic growth from the exhaustion of natural resources. This model is based on the creation of positive value loops for each use or re-use of the material prior to final destruction. In particular, it focuses on new design, production and consumption methods, extending the life of products, the use rather than possession of goods, the re-use and recycling of components. This is no easy task with regards to plastics as, once again, the products in which they are used are rarely made from a single polymer..
The automotive industry leads by example
ach year, polymers are increasingly used in the composition of cars. Their light weight and durability make them particularly suited for security reasons, but also for reasons relating to weight reduction and therefore the reduction of fuel consumption. Since 2015, a European directive has required car manufacturers to ensure that 95% of their vehicles must be recoverable, with a maximum of 10% in energy recovery. Some countries such as Germany even require parts such as hubcaps, bumpers and grills of all kinds to be dismantled for recycling prior to crushing the vehicle. Scandinavia has gone one step further: it is seriously considering the dismantling of electronic components. In other words, the automotive industry is under considerable pressure and is making efforts to put forward solutions aimed at better recovering used materials.
The various industries are gradually complying with these requirements, and a considerable proportion of recycled polymers is used to manufacture new vehicles.
On the right track of a long road
Although the use of recycled plastics is an economically profitable and environmentally responsible operation, some pitfalls still need to be addressed. First among these is the quality of polymers. Although recycled plastics are currently very similar to virgin resins, they are not sufficiently so in the eyes of demanding manufacturers such as those in the automotive industry. Brands such as Opel have developed comprehensive strategies in this regard. When designing a new model, each plastic part is reviewed. After calculations have been carried out, they will opt to use a recycled material if it is technically feasible and not more costly than a part made from virgin plastics. Better yet, the parts are designed to be recycled and their future use is planned long before new models are designed.
An in-depth analysis of the production cycle reveals that using recycled polymers can help achieve a 30% reduction in the CO2 emissions from the manufacture of the parts. However, the manufacturer still restricts the use of recycled plastics to certain hidden parts: the manufacturer refuses to use them in surface parts for purely aesthetic reasons as recycled plastic is more easily scratched. Nevertheless, in the space of two decades, manufacturers who used four varieties of recycled polypropylene now use over 230 varieties of polymers, including PC, ABS, PA and others.
Ricoh loops the loop
Ricoh, the world-renowned manufacturer of photocopiers, has been investigating the concept of circular economy for a good decade. The company has developed an innovative process to sustainably manage the plastics used to manufacture their photocopiers and consumables. The result: the establishment of a process to recover used ink cartridges and obsolete machines from its customers. The products are re-packaged and, at the end of their life cycle, they are dismantled, the various parts are sorted according to the nature of their polymer and are crushed before being recycled. Taking the extra step, Ricoh also recovers its damaged plastic pallets, crushes them and converts them into … brand-new pallets. This bold strategy has already paid off and has the full support of the brand's customers.
DuPont, pre-packaged solutions
Some manufacturers, of polymers intended for packaging, are taking an interest in the life cycle of the products that they package. American company DuPont advocates more widespread use of multilayer plastic films to package sensitive products such as meat. These new films can be made up of a dozen layers of different polymers and guarantee the food will remain fresh almost twice as long as in conventional packaging. This "super protection" guarantees fewer losses and, therefore, less waste. They also enable food to be vacuum-packed. In the end, the packaging hardly weighs anything and is less cumbersome. This means that more food can be fitted into transport trucks, and fewer greenhouse gases are emitted during transport from the production centre to the point of sale.
Better yet, these films made from a variety of polymers were difficult to recycle until recently, DuPont innovated by adding various compatibility additives to solve this problem. The films can now be integrated into the worthy circle of the circular economy.
Vacuum cleaners inspire recyclers
The collaboration between Philips and Veolia, one of the European leaders in waste treatment, started in 2010. The first appliance to be developed: a vacuum cleaner for which Veolia developed a material made from recycled battery casings. As a result, some Philips vacuum cleaners now contain 1.5 kg of recycled polypropylene. And the company aims to achieve a proportion of 2 kg soon. Replacing virgin plastic with recycled plastic may seem like a simple matter, but it is not. Engineers are focusing their efforts on two aspects: the materials' shock-resistance and their colour. This is why they have pooled their efforts in order to achieve the best possible result. Reaching the manufacturing stage is no easy process either. Manufacturers are used to working with virgin polymers, and using recycled plastics can be difficult, in particular due to the presence of residual impurities.
The impurities are sometimes visible on materials dyed black or white. Therefore, it is important to choose colours that are compatible with the recycled polymers at the time of designing the product. This is why creating appliance involves more than just the engineers, as marketing specialists are also involved from the earliest stages of the process.
Imagination takes over
All over the world, start-ups are being created around, often original always notable, initiatives. VolkerWessels, in the Netherlands, was able to develop what may be the road to tomorrow. The road is made up of interlocking panels of recycled plastic. According to the start-up, this type of road can be built in the space of a few weeks, are three times more durable than current asphalt roads, with minimal maintenance. A test is currently underway in Rotterdam. Fashion is another area which has seen its share of new companies concerned with recycling plastics. Among many others is the Spanish Ecoalf company which has created various lines of clothing and accessories using plastic waste recovered from the Mediterranean Sea.
Collaboration: a state of mind often found among advocates of the circular economy. Such collaborations sometimes even cross borders and involve several States. In Austria, the Local Environmental Agency has set up the ambitious Twinning project, thanks to funding from the European Union. In a few words, the project aims to make a panel of experts available to countries with less advanced waste treatment initiatives in order to help them implement the most effective measures. Using their experience, the international experts will contribute to saving beneficiary countries a great many years in exhaustive feasibility studies. Currently, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo and Turkey are the recipients of such projects, and over a dozen countries have applied for membership. Things are changing for the better!