A circular economy is restorative and regenerative by design and is usually based on three key principles – design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use, and regenerate natural systems. Global consumer trends are driving brand owners, processors and the packaging industry to shift towards a circular economy, compared to the traditional ‘make, take, waste’ linear model prevalent in the last few decades.
To drive a circular plastics economy, there is a need to rethink how plastics are managed, reused, and recycled, to ensure continued growth and relevance in the plastics and packaging marketplace. One step in enabling circularity is to ensure that we employ the waste hierarchy, and we recycle as much as we can. However, a large proportion of plastic packaging materials are not designed effectively to be recycled, and as such, end up as waste. Taking a different approach to product design and packaging solutions presents opportunities for the plastics industry to shift towards a focused spotlight on product design for sustainability.
Polymer solutions for recyclability
A key challenge for value chain partners is to continuously find ways to increase the value of plastics and remain cost-efficient at the same time. There is a need for innovative plastics solutions and robust planning and execution for the mid to long term to enhance the value of plastics in society.
Innovation is important to create plastic products that offer unique product characteristics and value for the companies to reduce their product footprints, encourage the reduction of carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions across the entire lifecycle, and enhance the reusability and recyclability of their products.
Creative, smart and innovative product designs can enable efficient recyclability and sustainability. PolyBlend provides innovative, value creating polymer solutions within their design concept, and has been working on developing formulations and offering differentiated solutions for applications to achieve full post-consumer recycling.
Designing for a better tomorrow
Faced with changing consumer preferences and increasing calls to better manage global plastic consumption and waste, the entire plastics industry value chain must come together and work to transition smoothly into new ways of managing and optimising the use of this valuable material.
There is already some promising progress in key areas such as an increasing number of companies setting sustainability goals, the growth of recycled content in packaging, and national and industry targets in place to reduce virgin plastic content. The circularity ambition is a significant and crucial goal and requires strong and concerted actions by the society to achieve a zero-waste plastics economy and safeguard the environment.
Why consider life cycle perspective?
Some of our significant environmental impacts can occur during the transport, delivery, use, end-of-life treatment or final disposal of its product or service. By reviewing the information, we can potentially prevent or mitigate adverse environmental impacts during these life cycle stages. PolyBlend considers the extent of control or influence that it can exert over activities, products and services, a life cycle perspective.
The life cycle thinking approach is a critical part of the Disruptive Design Method and ISO systems thinking at Polyblend. Let’s take a closer look at what this means and how we adopt this approach…
Did you know there are 5 Main Life Cycle Stages?
Everything that is produced goes through these stages: material extraction, manufacturing, packaging & transportation, use and end of life. At each of these stages, there are inputs and outputs, process flowthroughs, value losses, and potential gains. In life cycle thinking, we use these as a foundation for thinking through what needs to occur for something to be made. This is done at the very start of the design stage and developed into our process. Here’s a breakdown of the stages….
1. Material Extraction
Everything comes from nature at some point, so all materials can be traced back to where and how they were extracted. Whether its stuff pulled out of the ground, cut down, or chemically created, we need to change and often destroy ecosystems that would have otherwise been providing the service of clean air and water. So, from a life cycle perspective, we go back to before we extracted the materials and then evaluate the method of extraction.
This is where we take the extracted materials and transform them into usable base materials, products, and goods. All activities in the manufacturing stage are accounted for, and the inputs and outputs (such as the input of energy and output of wastepaper) are identified and explored for their positive and negative impacts to the biosphere. Manufacturing includes the manufacturing of extracted materials into usable ones and the possessing of multiple materials into usable goods.
3. Packaging and Transportation
This happens at every stage of the products life, and to be honest, is often where people assume the biggest ecological impacts occur – but this usually not the case when you compare all the activities across the entire life of the product. Packaging is a real conundrum, as it’s often overdone as well as made with materials that don’t fit back into nature well; however, sometimes the loss of the product is greater from an LCA perspective than the loss of the packaging. Take salad bags: if packed in a plastic cushion bag, we often have far less product loss, which has a net ecological gain. Transport is much the same – sometimes it makes sense to transport things across the world rather than grow it locally if the climatic conditions do not allow for it. For example, tomatoes being grown in a hothouse with lots of energy inputs in a cold climate vs being shipped from a warmer location, the latter is often better when everything is taken into consideration.
4. Use Phase
This is where we buy the product, take it home, use it, and then when it is no longer desired, functional, or fashionable, it moves on to the final stage of its life. The thing to identify in the use phase is if the products are ‘active’, meaning they must be plugged in or washed, for example. This will mean that the use phase often dominates the life cycle impacts of these types of products, as it is the connection to a bigger system as a core that draws constant impacts. Products that are ‘passive’, meaning they don’t need any extra inputs throughout their life (like a chair or a book), often have lower use phase impacts and instead are dominated by manufacturing or material extraction (and of course, end of life).
5. End of Life
The end-of-life impacts vary dramatically based on the options that are available in the location and the way the product is designed. To summarise, there are 4 main EoL options: landfill and littering (where we lose values from the system and create negative impacts), recycling with degrees of remanufacturing (reuse, repair, etc) and incineration (which replaces fossil fuel production but does mean we lose all the materials from the system). Each has its own degree of impact and emotional triggers. Today’s society hate waste, and so assume that end of life is the bigger part of the product’s impacts, but in many cases, it’s often not the biggest. All EoL issues must be addressed at the start of the product life, not the end.
Polyblend adopts this life cycle thinking approach across all of its operations, ensuring that our processes are as responsible and sustainable as they can be. As a provider of global polymer solutions, our compliance with ISO14001 and strong commitment to sustainable practices, enables us to provide the highest level of environmental standards to our customers.
What processes do you have in place to help reduce your impact on the planet?
Would be great to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
Dip Moulding is a simple and frequently employed process used worldwide. It works by creating a ‘to-scale’ mould of the product before it is heated and dipped in a liquid PVC or Acrylic, known as plastisol. With this type of process, the speed of entry and dip time determines the shape and thickness of the final product.
PolyBlend Managing Director, Mark Stewart announces his official retirement date as Friday March 31st 2023.
Let me wish all of you – our customers, our suppliers, our staff and my network – a very Merry Christmas!