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International Focus: What the "greening" of plastics means to molders

The only thing everyone agrees on is that there are many definitions for environmental sustainability. Here’s what some businesses are doing and what others should be doing in the movement to save the planet. It used to be that talk about “going green” spiked every April, but once Earth Day passed, the concept was shelved for another year. Now “greening” and “sustainability” have become buzzwords embedded in the long-term business strategies of major corporations as well as mom-and-pop operations.

The only thing everyone agrees on is that there are many definitions for environmental sustainability. Here’s what some businesses are doing and what others should be doing in the movement to save the planet.

It used to be that talk about “going green” spiked every April, but once Earth Day passed, the concept was shelved for another year. Now “greening” and “sustainability” have become buzzwords embedded in the long-term business strategies of major corporations as well as mom-and-pop operations.

Businesses are dealing with the high cost of energy, concerns about the environmental impact of industry, and the battle for limited natural resources. And there are no set definitions or criteria that apply to greening or sustainability in the plastics manufacturing environment. It seems like every producer, vendor, and user instinctively knows these are positive terms and wants to participate, but all define them from their own points of view.

“Green” is a clear business objective. The lack of concrete data on what has been accomplished until now is merely an indicator of its recent acceptance into the mainstream. At this stage, we have no reliable data from any region or country on how the plastics manufacturing marketplace has been changed. However, we have more than ample evidence that we are, in fact, going green.

What we mean by “going green”

There is division even within the green community as to how green should be defined. Three major factors come into play:
1. The carbon footprint a product leaves from cradle to grave.
2. The amount of new materials used in creating a product, and/or the ratio of new to recycled materials.
3. The product’s end-of-life environmental impact.

In judging the greenness of a CD case, for example, we would get completely different answers depending upon the criteria we use.
• One could argue that lightweight plastic cases are the best because they leave the smallest carbon footprint, or that they are the worst because they use new materials.
• CD cases using postconsumer waste could be the best because they use the least new materials, or the worst because the economics of postconsumer recycling are so bad.
• One might assert that paper is best because it uses renewable materials, or the worst because it has a higher carbon use than plastic. Paper might also be best because it biodegrades, or worst because it has a higher breakage rate and 90% of the energy used to produce the total product is spent on the contents inside the package, which therefore deserve protection.
• CD cases made of bioresin might be best because they are compostable, but they could also be the worst because they can contaminate the recycling stream and appropriate composing sites are not available in most of the country.

The (supposed) end of life for machines

Recognizing that there is no clear rule for going green, let us examine injection molding in terms of machines.

Molders in Japan, Taiwan, the United States, and Western Europe have taken the lead in investing in high-end, energy-efficient, all-electric machines. In general, this is a greening in the industry. The only caveat is that older models of machines are turning up in locations such as China and India. While some may see this as recycling older units, these units require a lot more energy and tend to be pushed harder, often operating for three shifts a day.

According to statistics from Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ climate change division, developing countries such as China and India are accountable for 50% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. China’s emissions are so harsh that it closed factories in July and August, hoping to clear the air in and around Beijing in time for the Olympics. According to the International Energy Agency, China burns more than 22.7 quadrillion Btu of coal a year for electricity and energy for its industrial sector, making China an extreme greenhouse gas emitter.

But in India, Ajay Shankar, secretary of India’s Dept. of Industrial Policy & Promotion, says figures criticizing his country are wrong. He claims manufacturing in India is far more energy efficient than in many other nations, and plans are in the works to market Indian manufacturing as green.

Rather than selling off older machines, a greener solution would be to recover as much material as possible from older units for recycling. While much of Europe has Extended Producer Responsible (EPR) laws that require manufacturers to be responsible for their products from cradle to grave, U.S. companies do not have similar economic incentives to recover and reuse materials. A good example of voluntary EPR is in disposable cameras. Photo processing plants collect the plastic boxes, which are then recycled into new disposable cameras. EPR began as a way to address landfill shortages but has emerged as a way to go green as well.

Shining examples

Wal-Mart has stepped up efforts to reduce its carbon footprint in ways most molders can imitate—by reducing fuel consumption, finding ways to ship smaller and lighter loads (thus reducing freight costs), and by increasing recycling efforts. With the 2005 hurricane season affecting so many Wal-Mart customers and associates, H. Lee Scott Jr., president and CEO of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., felt compelled to commit the company to eliminating 30% of the energy used in its stores. This would in turn cut Wal-Mart’s contribution to greenhouse emissions and global warming.

To give you an idea of the size and scope of the company, Lee claims, “If we were a country, we would be the 20th largest in the world. If Wal-Mart were a city, we would be the fifth largest in America.” Wal-Mart intends to reduce greenhouse gases by 20% at existing facilities around the world by 2012, to double fleet efficiency by 2015, and to share all the technologies it develops with the rest of the world, including its competitors. Wal-Mart has begun recycling of waste plastic from packaging that it used to throw away (and pay to have hauled). It estimates that, when implemented in all stores, the recycling effort will add $28 million to the bottom line per year in addition to helping the environment.

Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd. (Bolton, ON) is reducing its carbon footprint by participating in a demand-response initiative that reduces nonessential power use at times when the local grid is strained. This not only is environmentally friendly, but also is being a good neighbor. Many power companies bill industrial use based on peak usage, so all manufacturers have the potential to save money while helping the environment by curtailing nonessential power use during peak times.

The Green Suppliers Network is a collaboration among industry and government that focuses on offering small and medium-sized manufacturers the best available technical assistance on lean and clean manufacturing techniques. The Environmental Protection Agency provides program support and funding. Once participants implement changes, they can be included in the government’s Green Suppliers Network.

Sustainable materials options

Those who argue for sustainability in its purest form want to create production processes that can be maintained indefinitely. They usually feature biodegradable products from fast-growing and plentiful organic material (waste used as fertilizer). Think of pillows made from bamboo-filled cotton ticking that are composted at the end of their useful life as a current example of a sustainable commercial product. But this narrow view of sustainability does not take into account that in the modern era, organic materials are harvested, transported, processed, and marketed and that each of these steps requires energy and impacts the environment.

Bioresins are the closest we get to sustainability within our industry. The advantages are that bioresins are plant based, so they depend on renewable resources instead of upon petroleum. Most of today’s bioresins are made from corn, wheat, soybeans, and sugar cane. One natural question at a time when the price of food is skyrocketing is, does it make sense to divert foodstuffs for tables to chemical plants?

Three parameters have the most influence on whether and when bio-based plastics are more economical than conventional ones—and if they are greener for a particular product:
1. The raw materials have to be less expensive than the fossil resources. Since most of the bioresin manufacturers are vertically integrated and own interests in the farms that produce the plant base, the cost of raw materials for bioresins will be more stable than those of petroleum-based resins as we see the oil supply dwindle. Oil will be needed to harvest and transport the raw materials, so the cost of biological materials is not independent of the cost of oil.
2. Bioplastics are only at the beginning of their development and market introduction. As a result, there are not yet any economies of scale in their production. Higher production volumes will help to decrease their price and make their production greener.
3. Present processes to manufacture bioresins require more steps to create a marketable resin than the operation required to produce petroleum-based resins. Technology to streamline the techniques will lead to cost savings.

Bioresins are presently being used as substitutes for polyethylene, polypropylene, PET, polystyrene, and PVC. The main industries using them include automotive, textile, consumer electronics, medical, food packaging, and cosmetics packaging.

BASF SE is currently selling traditional resins, a petroleum-based bio­de­grad­able resin, and a bio­resin containing corn-based polylactide (PLA). A company spokesperson says the market for biodegradable resins and bioresins is growing at 20%/year and is expected to maintain that level of growth or higher for the next several years.

The downside of PLA

These alternate materials may sound like the perfect sustainable solution, but there are still hurdles to jump. When PLA was first rolled out, it was applauded as being compostable, but industrial composting has not taken off as anticipated. PLA composting requires controlled temperature and humidity to facilitate breakdown; otherwise, the product maintains its integrity. There are currently no set standards for compostable materials and most consumers do not have access to industrial composting. PLA producer NatureWorks LLC (Minnetonka, MN) implemented a buyback program to recover and recycle its PLA bottles, but that isn’t always practical for nationally branded products (for example, Wal-Mart stores sell juice in PLA bottles).

Presently PLA products such as juice bottles are thrown away or end up being confused with PET and accidentally put into recycling bins. According to David Cornell, technical director for the Assn. of Postconsumer Plastics Recyclers (APR), when PLA accidentally contaminates the PET stream at the recycling center, it destroys a batch of material that might otherwise have been reused. Similarly, PET mixed in with PLA would contam­inate that batch. Since ­consumers are not prepared to dispose of compostable materials, most bioresins end up in landfills where the conditions do not encourage them to degrade quickly.

There is also a growing push among manufacturers of bioresins and the APR to develop an SPI code or codes to cover bioplastics. The ultimate goal would be to develop a separate system where all bioresins could be ­recovered and reused or ­composted. This would help address the solid waste issues as well as better manage ­resources.

Where we are

Each major corporation we surveyed had either greening or sustainability in its long-term planning. Some companies are focusing on reducing their carbon footprint while others are looking at sustainability by seeking out organic substitutes for synthetics.

We see many companies trying to contain costs by designing products to use less plastic material. For example, Deer Park advertises that its water bottles use 30% less plastic. Still, you can only go so light, and that trend will eventually be phased out by a push to use more recycled materials and/or bioresins.

We hear a lot of talk about replacing plastics with paper and glass. Don’t buy into the hype too quickly. Wal-Mart recently had a sustainable packaging fair where Keith Christman, senior director of packaging for the Plastics Div. of the American Chemistry Council, presented a program to the retailer’s suppliers called Plastics 101. The program outlined how companies can dramatically reduce their greenhouse emissions related to packaging and save money along the way.

According to Christman, manufacturers know that 90% of a finished product’s total energy requirement is used to make the product vs. 10% to make its package. Thus, a paper or glass package that fails and spoils the product inside costs more money than it saves. The weight difference between plastics and alternatives also factors into its greenness when looking at the costs of shipping. In general, switching to plastic packaging can reduce overall greenhouse emissions by up to 56%.

Plastics recycling rates in the United State are dismal. One of the few major corporations truly taking advantage of it is Coca-Cola, which has invested in six bottle-to-bottle recycling plants around the world: Austria, Mexico, the U.S., Australia, the Philippines, and Switzerland. It is currently building the world’s largest bottle-to-bottle recycling plant in Spartanburg, SC.

“We have set an ambitious goal to recycle or reuse all the plastic bottles we use in the U.S. market,” says Sandy Douglas, president of Coca-Cola North America. “Our investments in recycling infrastructure, coupled with our work on sustainable package design, will help us reach this target.”

On a lighter note, in April, select Wal-Mart stores across the country began displaying sustainable fashion made from recycled plastic Coca-Cola bottles. The colorful t-shirts, made from a blend of recycled plastic bottles and cotton and featuring playful slogans such as “Make your Plastic Fantastic” and “Rehash your Trash” are intended to promote recycling of used beverage bottles into renewable, reusable products.

Where we’re headed

We anticipate a more aggressive push at the municipal level to mandate postconsumer recycling in both residential and commercial locales. While we do not anticipate the trash police to patrol the streets, simply having recycling containers available everywhere helps foster the mindset and encourages recycling efforts.

Resin prices will remain high and then level off, probably in the next five to 10 years, as better, more versatile grades of bioresins roll out and establish a solid track record. Over the long haul, they will capture a large market share. In the short term, we do not expect to see them outstrip traditional products, but as bioresins improve and their costs hold steady compared to other alternatives, they will become more economically feasible. Since both recyclers and manufacturers are working together to implement programs to recover and reuse these products, we anticipate it will happen, albeit slowly.

If that doesn’t work, we may start seeing plastics recycled in new and innovative ways. It’s already happening in India, where Kochi addressed its plastics waste problem by including clean shredded plastic (up to 4 mm thick only) with the bitumen used for paving roads. The city discovered that up to 3% of the mix could be waste plastic without compromising the quality of the road. Since this is an area of the world with a rapidly growing road system, the paving plan provides an innovative solution to solid waste disposal.

Expect to see national EPR laws implemented in the next decade. While the European Union began phasing in these laws nearly a decade ago, EPR laws in the United States are limited and local. The U.S. has been talking about these for a decade and a phase-in is inevitable.

As we move forward, each client and each product must be evaluated individually to determine the best combination to achieve greenness. Sabine Philip of BASF SE sums it up well: “Only the exact examination of the specific application case, product, and its life-cycle assessment (LCA) yields the information if a switch from a conventional raw material to a bio-based one is ecologically and economically beneficial. There is absolutely no ‘bio is always good’ rule. And a real detailed cradle-to-grave analysis might in some cases yield surprising results concerning energy consumption and emission savings.”

The green future

How will all these changes affect injection molders around the globe? Right now we lack tangible and verifiable data on how much of this change has already occurred and what it means for molders. Yet based on the skimpy existing evidence, we can make several concrete projections:
• The “green” movement will cost money to molders already strapped by high resin and energy prices and limited availability of funds for capital investment. Molders will need to replace older injection machines with costly, yet energy-efficient all-electric molding machines. These machines are also more efficient in terms of production. Yet it typically takes 14-18 months before molders can see a concrete improvement in the plant operating costs.
• As molders in developed economies—such as North America and Western Europe—replace older machines, these machines will get “recycled” and used in emerging markets such as China, India, and Mexico. The net result is that that while Western Europe and North America can afford greener manufacturing, the older machines will expand the pollution problems in other economies. Note that less than 10% of injection machines now being installed in India on an annual basis are the cost-, energy-, and labor-efficient all-electric machines.
• Molders need concrete help in determining what exactly their customers mean by “green” and to move beyond the slogan. Just what is required of molders? The guidelines from end users of molded parts are vague and differ from region to region and from end market to end market. One possible source of information in this fluid environment will be trade shows and conferences such as those listed below:
Sustain ’08 Nov. 5-7, 2008, Chicago, IL | www.sustain08.com
NPE 2009 June 22-26, 2009, Chicago, IL | www.npe.org
[email protected] 2009 June 22-24, 2009, Chicago, IL | www.4spe.org/conf/antec09

A green model for the U.S.

Any nation measuring its greening by reduction of energy consumption can look to Japan as an example of success. According to Naoto Hisajima, director of Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ climate change division, Japan experienced a 37% reduction in energy consumption from 1973-1988 and since then has maintained a steady energy use—despite more than doubling its gross domestic product. As part of the country’s aggressive stance to fight global warming, Japan now has environmental standards and energy laws aiming to reduce energy consumption again, this time by 30% between 2008 and 2030.

As a country, Japan is investing tens of billions of dollars in fuel technology research and is currently building 20 nuclear power plants.

WEB EXTRA: Growth in bioplastics

One of the early entries into the bioresin market was NatureWorks LLC. The company originated as a joint venture between Cargill and Dow more than a decade ago and is presently owned by Cargill and Teijin Ltd. of Japan. The company currently makes a PLA from locally grown feed corn. It is being extruded, blowmolded, thermoformed, and also injection molded for rigid cosmetics packaging such as lipstick tubes. Recent demand from molders has led NatureWorks to develop Ingeo 3251D, which is a new and improved IM grade. Ingeo has been designed for shorter molding cycles and reduced entry costs, allowing the same mold and screw use as styrenics (GPPS, SAN, HIPS, and ABS). According to Salvador Ortega, business development manager of NatureWorks LLC, the company now has “more than 100 brands using Ingeo in over 20 different applications, and present in more than 70,000 stores.” Oretga says he expects that some molders will see the potential for down gauging in some applications to compensate for higher density. Several companies are also doing research to develop better resins made from biomass.

Dow Chemical Co., which had been involved in NatureWorks, is returning to the bioplastics arena. It is joining with Crystalsev, one of Brazil’s largest ethanol producers, and plans to produce 350,000 tons/year of polyethylene from sugar cane ethanol starting in 2011.

Author Lisa M. Pellegrino ([email protected]) of The Repton Group LLC (New York, NY) is a regular contributor to IMM.

BASF SE | www.basf.com
Green Suppliers Network | www.epa.gov/greensuppliers/
Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd. | www.husky.ca
NatureWorks LLC | www.natureworksllc.com

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