Focus on: Plastics and the environment

Nolato, plastics and the environment

Plastic materials make life easier for most people. Plastics have fantastic properties and it is possible to make almost anything from them. They are everywhere, and it is almost impossible to try and avoid them in everyday life. Usage is growing, and global annual production totals around 300 million tonnes, which is an increase of 100% in 15 years.

Plastics are often climate-smart and save energy. The fact that they replace metals and other heavy materials in the automotive and aviation industries means a reduction in weight and fuel consumption, and thus carbon dioxide emissions. In the construction industry, plastics are used as an insulation material, which is positive from an energy perspective. Plastics as packaging material in retail reduce weights and fuel consumption. 

However, there is another side to the coin and plastics are associated with several environmental problems. They can contain hazardous additives that can cause harm to people and the environment. The majority of plastics are made from fossil crude oil – a non-renewable raw material that has a negative climate impact. One particular environmental problem that has come to the fore in recent years is contamination of our oceans. It is mainly caused by plastic used in consumer products with a short lifespan in countries with underdeveloped collection and recycling systems. Large quantities of plastic rubbish end up in the ocean, where it can take hundreds of years to break down.

 

What is Nolato’s view of plastics in the environment?

We share the view that plastics have both positive and negative qualities from an environmental perspective. We use somewhere in the region of 40,000 tonnes of plastic a year and our product range contains products that have both a long and a short lifespan. Long-lasting products are used as components in items such as vehicles, mobile phones, household appliances and medical devices. Most of the time there are efficient systems in place for collecting and recycling the plastic in products such as these. Short-lived products include pharmaceutical packaging and single-use products within health care. Many of these products are recycled, but we cannot rule out the possibility of some of them ending up littering the environment.

 

What is Nolato doing to reduce the environmental impact of plastics?

We have taken action to reduce or completely phase out the use of hazardous additives in the plastic. This move is being conducted actively and clear customer requirements constitute a process that will likely continue for several years. We are following developments closely. Another example of environmental adaptation is cutting the proportion of fossil raw materials used in products. For example, we have developed pharmaceutical packaging in which reduced weight generates environmental benefit while bringing costs down. Increasing the content of the filler material chalk is also a solution that is being applied in a number of products. We use around 600 tonnes of recycled plastic a year and are taking active measures to increase this.

 

How interested are customers in environmentally sustainable plastics?

We are seeing increased customer interest in our environmentally sustainable plastics. There is a marked interest in the automotive industry, where one key customer has established a target of all new vehicles containing 25% recycled plastics by the year 2025. There is also growing interest among customers in the hygiene and furniture sectors. We have a number of ongoing or initiated projects with such customers. Interest within pharmaceuticals and medical devices is less pronounced. This is most likely to do with the fact that it is costly and complicated to register changes in technical specifications with the pharmaceutical regulatory authorities.

 

What is bioplastic and is it biodegradable?

Bioplastic is a concept that is being increasingly used, but that can have many meanings: 

Bioplastic is a plastic that is entirely or partially based on renewable raw material. However, the concept says nothing about how much of the plastic comes from renewable material. Is it the polymer, filler, plasticiser and/or the other components that are renewable?

Bioplastics can be made from alcohols and acids that are found in nature; for example it is possible to make polyethylene from ethanol that comes from sugarcane. In practice, a monomer is taken from a biorefinery and polymerised using a similar technique as when making fossil-based plastics. However, issues relating to the environment and health and safety when growing the sugarcane and other plants are still important in assessments from a life cycle perspective.

Bioplastics can also be made from macromolecules from the plant kingdom, for example polysaccharides, proteins and lignin. Cellulose-based plastics have been around for some time, but unfortunately the manufacturing processes are not particularly good for people or the environment.

The fact that a plastic is based on a biological material does not necessarily mean that it breaks down easily in the natural environment. There are fossil plastics that are easily biodegradable and bioplastics that are difficult to break down.

 

It seems to be a complicated issue. So which way is Nolato heading?

Our choices are made in cooperation with our customers, but in order to achieve commercial success we need to have a good knowledge of different environmentally sustainable materials. Nolato is at the leading edge and we have evaluated bio-based plastics from sugarcane in various production technologies. It is an excellent material, and projects are underway with several customers. Other customers are showing greater interest in recycled plastic, and there are a number of interesting projects happening here too. There are plenty of opportunities, but of course there are also risks involved in replacing raw materials. For example, risks could relate to technical specifications, costs and access to the raw materials.

More that might interest you