Planet 3 min
Eco-design: plastics in constant search of virtue
Eco-design, which meets a precise and somewhat complex definition, is a fundamental pillar of any environmentally responsible approach, including the circular economy. From the materials themselves to the products' end-of-life, it provides increasing virtue for plastics at every stage of their life cycle. Here is a brief review of the details.
Eco-design: plastics in constant search of virtue
© Freepik
Eco-design: plastics in constant search of virtue

Eco-design is a preventive and innovative approach that aims to reduce the negative impact of a product (or service) on the environment throughout its life cycle: from the extraction of raw materials to manufacture, transport, use, and end-of-life. It requires us to constantly revise our work.

Eco-design: a matter of principles

To minimise the ecological footprint of products on the environment, eco-design encourages the efficient use of recycled or sustainable raw materials, i.e., recovered or renewable materials, rather than raw resources.

Simultaneously, eco-design aims to extend the life of products by making them repairable or encouraging reuse. Designing durable yet high-performing products fulfils the aim of reducing the amount of waste generated and promoting more responsible consumption.

As such, it is a fundamental aspect of the circular economy, an economic model that breaks away from our linear “throwaway” consumption patterns.

© Freepik

The analysis of a product’s (or service’s) life cycle is central to all eco-design issues.

Note, however, that eco-design does not simply mean applying a list of preconceived solutions. No magic formula — just a rigorous approach founded on a product-by-product Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). This tool assesses the environmental impact of a product throughout its life cycle. This enables us to identify the areas where action needs to be taken first and to ensure that the solutions considered do not have a negative impact on others.

A trend that is not new

Since the end of the last century, manufacturers of detergent containers started looking to lighten and rethink the shape of their HDPE packaging to optimise transport. By reducing about ten per cent of the volume  and the weight by around fifteen grams, their research made it possible to increase the number of HDPE containers per pallet.

© Freepik

Modifying the shape of a container to optimise transport means fewer lorries on the road and, therefore, fewer CO2 emissions.

This meant fewer lorries on the road, less CO2 emissions, and, more importantly, a definite economic benefit.

This is an excellent illustration of the benefits of looking at a product’s entire life cycle, with transport as one of its components, rather than focusing on materials alone.

This is why LCA always takes into account the product-packaging pairing, as the container has no purpose without its contents.

Similarly, in the case of packaging, the LCA reveals that preventing the degradation of meat, which has a very high carbon footprint, is a decisive factor to be considered. Indeed, the carbon footprint of the production and, even more so, the wastage of any foodstuff is always far greater than that of its plastic packaging.

No eco-designed buildings without polymers

The same principle applies to the construction industry: the insulation performance of a material throughout its useful life takes precedence over all other criteria. The CO2 savings generated by good insulation far outweigh the CO2 impact of the manufacture and end-of-life management of a panel made from EPS or PU. For example, the polyurethane foam used to insulate roofs requires 70 litres of oil to manufacture one m³. In 50 years, this cubic metre will save the equivalent of 5,500 litres of oil, or 19 tonnes of CO2.

 

Polymer foams are among the best materials for insulating buildings. Over their lifetime, they enable significant energy savings and reduce CO2 emissions. 

 

More generally, calculations show that if European buildings were perfectly insulated, the amount of CO2 emitted would be reduced by 70 to 75%.

Plus, the low weight of plastic construction products (insulation panels, windows, pipes and fittings, etc.) during transport to the construction or renovation site saves fuel and, therefore, CO2.

Decarbonising plastics, a new lever for eco-design of products

In Europe, polymers are still largely produced from fossil fuels (over 90% — see PE eco-circular report). But things are changing.

According to the “Plastics Transition” roadmap drawn up by European plastics producers, by the year 2050, 65% of all plastics used in Europe could be circular in nature. In other words, they could be derived not only from mechanical and chemical recycling, but also from biomass and carbon capture.

 

While the value of mechanical recycling in reducing the environmental impact of polymers is well established, the first products from chemical recycling are already on the market (see issue on chemical recycling).

© Freepik

Recycling (plastics) is still one of the best ways of “decarbonising” polymers at the moment.

 

 

Another emerging revolution is the use of renewable resources to produce plastics, which have traditionally been oil-based.

 

Biovyn, from the INEOS Group, is a biosourced PVC made from forest biomass. According to the group, this innovation cuts greenhouse gas emissions by more than 90% compared to traditional PVC without having to compromise on quality.

Used for the first time in windows and doors by the Kömmerling and Kumij companies, it saved around 6,000 kilograms of CO2 during the renovation and conversion of 19 social housing units into zero-energy homes in Steenwijk (Netherlands). A world first!

© Kömmerling

Biosourced plastics are another revolution, like the PVC used to make windows for the manufacturer Kömmerling.

© INEOS GRDF

Or this biosourced HDPE used in gas pipelines.

 

Finally, INEOS’s biobased high-density polyethylene (HDPE) has been used in the world’s first fully sustainable gas pipeline. Installed by GRDF, the French gas network operator, the pipeline uses only low-carbon polymer.

 

Made from wood processing residues from the paper industry, INEOS’s biosourced HDPE, produced at its Lillo plant in Belgium, has a much lower carbon footprint than its conventional fossil-based counterpart.

 

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