An overview on currently available environmentally friendly plastics and the challenges faced by the industry
Plastic containers and utensils are one of the most convenient materials for daily use. Its uses are endless, and its versatility allows us to adapt to a variety of conditions. Despite its immense benefits, plastic can also exist in low-quality forms that pose an environmental hazard.
In order to limit pollution from plastics, some companies have had difficulty developing environmentally-friendly plastics that still meet all the requirements necessary for such material.
What are the challenges to creating environmentally friendly plastics?
The challenges for developing environmentally-friendly plastics vary according to the specific needs of each company. Some companies are more likely to succeed in meeting these demands than others due to their different methods of production and end products.
The development of environmentally-friendly plastic is a difficult goal for many companies. The main challenge to developing such material is finding an acceptable balance between cost and quality. In other words, the manufacturers wish to produce both affordable and high-quality plastic. It can be difficult for some companies to produce a product that meets the high production standards of developed countries such as America and meets the low production standards of developing countries such as India. Often, one or more of these qualities must be sacrificed to produce another.
What are examples of environmentally-friendly plastics?
For some companies, the difficulty of producing environmentally friendly plastics comes from meeting product standards and costs while maintaining production efficiency. For instance, Maxwell Technologies Corp. has difficulty meeting its own product standards due to some of the specifications for its plastic components.
The company manufactures energy storage devices called ultracapacitors. The materials used in ultracapacitors must meet strict standards because of the required electrical field strength and charge/discharge rates. For example, an ultracapacitor requires a high resistance percolation rate which can be difficult for some plastics to provide. Maxwell’s goal of reaching low-cost production is challenged due to its use of high-grade plastic. This hinders the company from meeting its product standards that require higher quality plastic components.
For other companies, the challenge of developing environmentally-friendly plastics is more of quality concern. For instance, BASF is challenged when creating plastics that meet their normal production standards while still maintaining an environmentally safe material. The company’s main polymer product line consists of producing plastic resins used to create other plastics.
BASF’s ability to maintain low production costs is hindered as a result of low-quality plastic products. The company wishes to develop innovative and high-end plastics for its products and services but must also continue meeting its customers’ expectations for competitive service and high-quality products.
The particular product produced by a company is also likely to impact the difficulty of development. For instance, Covestro’s success in meeting the needs of their product specifications is hindered by the composition of their material, polycarbonate. Polycarbonate is made to be completely transparent and has a high versatility for different uses because of its high-temperature resistance and strength.
However, this quality also makes it difficult to recycle due to the material’s susceptibility to high temperatures, which causes degradation over time. This makes it impossible to reuse plastic for another product or process. In addition, polycarbonates are very prone to UV light degradation, making it difficult for some applications such as outdoor posters and signs. This is a major difficulty for Covestro.
Some companies may be faced with difficult challenges in the search for environmentally friendly plastics due to the materials they wish to use. It is important to note that the best materials are often unavailable due to their high cost and low availability of raw materials. For instance, many carbon fiber composites are extremely hard to make and, as a result, very expensive.
This results in most carbon fiber composites being produced from petroleum-based polymers rather than from renewable sources such as plastic waste or scrap plastic. There is also a great demand for these types of products, so even when companies can afford these recycled plastics, it takes many years for the material to become available.
Some companies are faced with difficult challenges in the search for environmentally-friendly plastics because of the need to constantly update their products. The consumer’s needs change over time, and so do the materials used in the products. For instance, many polyethylene bottles used to store drinks have very strict requirements on what can be put into them due to the health concerns associated with certain types of glass bottles. As new and more healthful materials become available, it can be difficult for companies to meet these requirements.
The demand for a specific material will also impact whether or not a company is able to develop a product that meets all its specifications. For instance, Monsanto has had trouble meeting the demand for their biodegradable plastics due to the demand for their main product, Bt cotton. This is an example of how a company’s ability to develop environmentally-friendly plastics can be hindered by its other products or services.
Why is plastic bad for the environment?
Many companies are also challenged in terms of what to do with the production waste from their plastic products when the products reach the end of their life cycle. For instance, many companies that use polypropylene and polyethylene bottles have no way to dispose of them once they reach the end of their life cycle. These bottles are often left on beaches and roadsides, where they create a huge environmental problem because they cannot be recycled easily.
What are barriers to creating environmentally-friendly plastics?
It is also important to note that there are many barriers to creating environmentally-friendly plastics. Often, when a company tries to develop its own environmentally friendly plastic, it cannot meet its quality standards or meet its cost expectations. This can limit the companies’ ability to produce low-cost alternatives while meeting market demands or meeting customer specifications. Suppose a company cannot provide the best product. In that case, it will be difficult for them to make a profit, limiting the companies’ ability to continue generating income and staying in business.
The most critical aspect of developing environmentally-friendly plastics is that materials have been found that have similar qualities as more fossil fuel-intensive products but with superior performance characteristics. Companies need to find these materials, but they also need to maintain their quality and cost expectations.
One example is polylactic acid (PLA) production, a biodegradable polymer that can increase its strength by several times when added to plastics, making it superior in many instances. When compared to virgin polyester, PLA has a significant increase in tensile strength for a similar or lower weight. This is caused by the smaller amounts of crystalline and amorphous materials used in PLA synthesis, resulting in improved crystallinity and reduced amorphous material content.
The amorphous content is reduced by using low degrees of crystallization in the polymerization process. Polylactic acid is also produced in a semicrystalline format, which increases the durability of PLA by reducing its wear resistance compared to other polyesters.
PLA – Polyactic Acid facts
Polylactic Acid (PLA) is a renewable, biodegradable plastic. It is manufactured from sustainable resources such as maize starch or sugar cane. Its rapid degradation in the environment makes it ideal for applications that must meet regulatory requirements for disposability. Plastic films and bottles are among of the most popular applications of PLA. PLA melts provide some intriguing 3D printing applications.
The adaptability of PLA as a bioplastic, as well as the fact that it spontaneously degrades when exposed to the environment, are significant advantages.
Plastics that degrade when exposed to the environment are eco-friendly, so the degradability of PLA is one of its key advantages.
Another example is the production of polyethylene-co-propylene solutions in high-density polyethylene (HDPE). This material can be used as a “monomer,” and in order to produce HDPE, manufacturers use ethylene and propylene monomers. HDPE has advantageous properties such as excellent physical properties, high tensile strength, low density, high resistance to chemicals, and impact damage. The most important characteristic of HDPE is being able to resist cracking under stress through a mechanism known as chain scission. Chain scission occurs when the hydrogen bonds between chains break during an accelerated stress test.
Is HDPE a better choice?
Approximately 40% of HDPE is recycled at end-of-life, surpassing all other polymers in terms of recycling rates. This is because HDPE has excellent mechanical properties, and it can be easily manufactured, making it a good candidate for recycling.
The issues with plastics are limited to their recyclability and the use of fossil energy in their production process, which requires large volumes of energy. As opposed to fossil fuels that are used today, these new types of environmentally friendly plastics are made from renewable resources such as corn starch and other biodegradable materials that have already been produced from agriculture and biomass feedstocks.