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Survival of the sustainable

We’re all hearing the word, but what is “sustainability”? It can be defined a number of ways, with the most frequently given definition from “Our Common Future,” the report of the 1983 United Nations Brundtland Commission: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Kate Dixon

January 24, 2009

10 Min Read
Survival of the sustainable

We’re all hearing the word, but what is “sustainability”? It can be defined a number of ways, with the most frequently given definition from “Our Common Future,” the report of the 1983 United Nations Brundtland Commission: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

More than 25 years have passed since that was written, during which many of the needs of future generations have been compromised, often severely, and possibly in some cases, forever (extinction).

In his many presentations on the need for sustainability in the plastics business sector, William Carteaux, CEO of the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI), quotes Thomas Jefferson’s concept of good stewardship: “We shall leave no debt to succeeding generations.” Sadly, we are leaving an increasingly large pile of debts to our children, grandchildren, and most likely beyond that.

The bath products from Design Ideas (top) made from PolyOne’s PHBV biomaterial won a product design award, and the toys made out of recycled milk jugs from Green Toys (bottom) use custom colors designed by PolyOne.

Before keynote speaker Andrew Winston took the stage at the Sustain08 conference in Chicago last November, Bill Carteaux (pictured), president of the Society of the Plastics Industry, stressed the importance of educating the plastics industry on sustainability.

Our 4 billion-year-old Earth is feeling a “sudden” pressure - and it’s us. In the year 1 C.E., Earth’s population was less than a quarter billion. Roughly 1800 years on, a billion; 120 years later, 2 billion; then in the next 100 years, it rockets to 7 billion—and is still growing. The Earth, however, has not grown.

It’s the opposite of easy

A principal reason why we are not already using resources sustainably is that, well, it’s a really big task. We have to change our basic way of looking at the world. We (mainly, but not only, America) have been for some time a consumption society. Use things; throw them away in a landfill, which is only a sanitized term for garbage dump; and leave it for someone else to deal with.
That has to stop. Now. And it won’t stop by waiting for the government or anyone else to do it for us. Many scientists and writers studying the problem agree that all of us, including government, have to be part of the solution, or it won’t work.

The bad news is we’re late getting started. Alarms were going off 20 and 30 years ago, and conveniently ignored. The good news is, we have gotten started. There are numerous organizations and movements already hard at work on it, as well as tomes of information on going green, recycling, reusing, designing for reuse, green materials, and much more.

Ten simple steps to going green?

Forget the fast and easy approach. Living sustainably is not simple until we radically change our consume-and-discard style of living, which will take many more than 10 steps.

For example, the concept of ecology, which means all things in the environment are interrelated—that our environment is a system—leads logically to the approach that solving the problems in our environment and avoiding the creation of new ones will take “system thinking.”

An individual’s carbon footprint is an example of system thinking. Everything and everyone has a carbon footprint. It’s the sum of all the carbon, usually measured as CO2 in the air, which was released in the course of something becoming what it is—all the way back to the raw materials.

How much CO2 was released in making the tires of the truck that brought molding material to your shop? How much resulted from the truck’s fuel consumption? That kind of thinking is outside our normal frame of reference. Becoming system thinkers will entail some serious growth, but it’s worth the effort.

Living in a material world

At the front of the supply chain, material suppliers have fewer steps to calculating the carbon footprint of their products, but since they are in the chemicals business, strict regulations and tough questions from customers led many of these companies to start developing sustainability measures a decade or more ago. And though the scale of these mostly massive operations might differ drastically from a molding shop trying to go green, much can be learned from observing their successes in sustainability.

“Sustainability is embedded in our company’s culture, and we believe it is an economic, environmental, and social prerequisite for continued commercial success,” says David Weidman, Celanese Corp. (Dallas, TX) chairman and CEO, who will take over this month as chairman of the American Chemistry Council. In the company’s recently released annual sustainability report, Celanese reports a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 30% globally since 2005, and that as of 2007, the company had nearly reached its goal for reducing waste volume by 25%, with a goal of 40% waste reduction by 2010.

The company is also committed to reducing the energy intensity Celanese uses to make its products, exceeding the goal set at the beginning of the century with a reduction of 22%. A new goal of an additional 20% energy intensity reduction will result in an overall energy index reduction of more than 35% by 2010.

“The value to society is measured not only by the performance of our products, but also by the environmental footprint associated with their manufacture and use,” says Steve Pryor, president of ExxonMobil Chemical Corp. (Houston, TX). “We are committed to reducing our environmental footprint through increasing our own energy efficiency, advancing current technologies, and developing breakthrough technologies.”

One of these breakthrough technologies is a recently developed proprietary catalyst to improve the overall manufacturing process for polyester, making it more efficient and cost effective. Licensed under the name PxMax, the process significantly lowers the production cost of xylene, polyester’s primary manufacturing ingredient. Less energy is required and less waste is generated, which lowers CO2 emissions from the eight ExxonMobil and licensee plants using the PxMax technology. And at ExxonMobil Chemical’s Baton Rouge, LA plant, where the world’s first steam cracker began operating more than 60 years ago, the same unit now consumes less than half of the energy per ton of olefin produced than it did in 1941.

Growing biomaterials

The biopolymer market is still in the early stage of development, but according to PolyOne (Avon Lake, OH), it is growing at a rate of 20% annually. Reasons for the limited growth include performance restrictions, processing issues, and a higher cost than many petroleum-based competitors. In addition, availability is limited due to the key polymers PLA, PHA, and PBAT being in short supply, with significant capacity announcements expected early this year.

Robert McKay, sustainable polymers project manager for Sabic Innovative Plastics (Pittsfield, MA), notes that replacing fossil resources with agricultural crops requires more land area, competing with food production. Many first-generation bio-based plastics are based on starch, largely from corn, but recent developments use nonfood ingredients. For example, researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Chemical Technology (Pfinztal, Germany) and its spin-off company Tecnaro GmbH developed an injection moldable bioresin using lignin, an unneeded cellulose industry byproduct from papermaking.

PolyOne has proven to be an early innovator in developing not only biopolymers, but also additives and colorants to meet industry requirements and official composting standards. The first design firm to use PolyOne’s proprietary bio-based polyhydroxy­butyrate-valerate copolymer (PHBV), Design Ideas (Springfield, IL), was honored with a product design award at the 2008 International Home & Housewares show for the EcoGen Bath Collection products. When exposed to microorganisms in compost or soil, the PHBV-based material decomposes into carbon dioxide, water, and biomass, and unlike some other bio­poly­mers, PHBV can withstand temperatures of 230°F (110°C). It has passed stringent dishwasher tests, giving products the ability to perform for years under normal conditions. PolyOne says Forbes magazine has called PHBV “one of the five molecules that will change the world.”

Education is the first step

When asked to give his biggest sustainability tip, Bill Bowie, COO of Resin Technology Inc. (RTi; Fort Worth, TX), believes you must “get educated about what you can do.” Sustainability isn’t just about spending more money on newer, more energy-efficient equipment or putting in a recycle bin; draw on the research of numerous experts in the field who have provided valuable information in books, seminars, and workshops. Conferences covering general sustainability topics, and even more specialized information on subjects such as packaging, are being organized for every part of the country, and the minimal expense can lead to ideas that save your company, and the environment, in the long run.

Plus, if you aren’t attending, you can assume that your competitors are. In the last few months alone, about 150 plastics professionals attended the Sustain08 conference in Chicago (Nov. 5-7), while around 300 attended the 3rd European Bioplastics Conference in Berlin, Germany (Nov. 5-6, 2008).

At the sustainability conference sponsored by IMM in Rosemont, IL, on Sept. 24, 2008, Tom Duffey, president of custom injection molder Plastic Components Inc. (Germantown, WI) and also president of trade group Mid-America Plastics Partners (MAPP; Indianapolis, IN), gave attendees tips on how MAPP members have made big improvements with small strategies.

“A lot of the things that are falling under the heading of sustainability might also fall under the heading of good, profitable business practices,” said Duffey. His company installed motion sensors to turn off lights when rooms are empty, and the heat generated from the company’s molding process is used to heat the factory, resulting in additional energy savings. He also suggested reducing peak-load demand when starting up the factory on Monday morning, and suggested that plastics processors start with “small, incremental, and doable things.”

“First, look at your inputs, then calculate your outputs, and finally calculate the waste—not just the trash, although it’s important,” suggests RTi’s Bowie. He believes that by calculating the energy and material used, manpower, time, and money, a balance can be achieved. Simple changes to reduce, reuse, and recycle at home and at work can make a bigger difference than you’d imagine.

Don’t do it alone

Though it seems that plastics manufacturing is more competitive than ever, industry experts agree that processors can’t wait until sustainability practices are mandates, and that molders need to learn from one another. “The government is not the answer,” says Steve Petrakis, president of Frigel North America Inc. (East Dundee, IL), a company that was recently awarded the 2008 Illinois Governor’s Pollution Prevention Award for its closed-loop energy-saving Ecodry cooling systems. “We have to be sustainable in our own companies, and we need to help each other.”

The Society of Plastics Industry (SPI) is also committed to educating consumers on the benefits of sustainable plastic products. The New Technology Pavilion at NPE2009 will highlight advancements in bio-based materials, sustainability issues and technologies, and developments relating to energy independence.

Joining more than 500 companies as a member of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Environmental Performance Track can help your business set goals, record performance, gain recognition, and even be paired with a top-performing facility as a mentor. In 2007 alone, Performance Track members used 559,991 tons of reused-recycled materials, saved more than 3 billion gallons of water, and reduced 309,780 metric tons of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gases. (Check out this site for a resource that addresses lean thinking in green initiatives.)And here’s help from us: In our newly created Sustainability Resource Center at imm.plasticstoday.com, debuting soon, we’ll tell you more about using consultants, who can help measure your manufacturing facility’s carbon footprint or energy consumption. We’ll give more sustainability stories from molders, provide tips for purchasing energy-saving machinery, and cover the recycling aspect of sustainability. We’re here to help you make decisions that are good not only for your business, but also for future generations’ ability to survive on our planet.—[email protected]  —[email protected]


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