At the Global Plastics Summit earlier this month, Kim Holmes, Director of Recycling and Conversion at SPI, pointed out that plastic manufacturing has a PR problem in our society.  Plastic waste in our parks and oceans give consumers a bad feeling about using plastic products.  

Too few plastic products are recycled or reused.  In order to improve plastic’s image and increase demand for plastic products, Holmes recommended that the plastic manufacturing industry take a “supply chain approach” to reducing plastic waste.  In other words, the industry has to increase the demand for recovered plastics and find uses for recycled content materials.

Environmentalism and sustainability are huge topics in the world of plastic manufacturing.  Plastics have made so many cutting edge inventions possible-couldn’t there be a way to make plastics greener?

Many plastic manufacturing companies and individuals have been innovating ways to make plastics more sustainable and eco-friendly. These processes range from finding better ways to recycle plastic to making biodegradable plastics. Below are three examples of recent inventions in the world of plastic recycling and sustainability.

1)      Turning Landfill Waste into Biodegradable Plastic

A team of students from the Imperial College of London recently discovered a way to make harmless E. coli bacteria breakdown landfill waste into biodegradable plastic or bioplastic.  Commonly used to make disposable syringes and other hospital equipment, the bioplastic itself breaks down easily once no longer in use.

There are two major benefits to this plastic engineering innovation:

  • Bioplastics have traditionally been made from plants.  Using plants in plastic production makes more eco-friendly plastics but has the side effect of requiring lots of land to grow the plants.  The bacteria create bioplastic out of landfill waste that would be useless otherwise.  Now land that was previously occupied for making bioplastic is free for other agricultural uses. 
  • This new method is a great alternative to using petroleum to manufacture plastics.  By using garbage wisely, we prevent plastics from being deposited in landfills. 

Here's a very short video showing how the process works:

Pretty cool, right?  That’s some efficient plastic recycling right there.  Read more by checking out this article.

2)      Improving the Efficiency of Plastic Recycling

Akshey Sethi, student at UC Davis and founder of Ambercycle Inc. has invented a new method to handle the waste produced by our mass consumption of plastic bottles.  Most plastic bottles are made out of Polyethylene Terephthalate, or PET.  After PET or Polyethylene Terephthalate plastics have been used, 84% of it ends up in a landfill or as litter. Only 6% of PET actually ends up recycled into a new product.  One of the major reasons for this waste is that PET loses a lot of quality during the recycling process and is therefore of limited use to the plastic industry.

Sethi and his team came up with a solution to redirect the plastic waste back to the producers to be used again. His team uses synthetic enzymes to break down the PET plastic waste into its chemical components, Terephthalic acid and Ethylene glycol. The chemical components are sold to make new plastic resin while maintaining a high quality.

Ambercycle is still in the beginning phase of its pursuit to revamp the PET recycling process. To learn more about Ambercycle, download this presentation by Sethi. I can’t wait to see how their company develops in the future.

3)      Making Cars out of Plant-Based Plastics

When you think about making a car more environmentally friendly, you might imagine enhancing the vehicle’s fuel economy or finding a greener fuel source altogether. What if even the interior of the vehicle was made from plant-based materials?

In partnership with Coca-Cola, Ford is currently developing the new Ford Fusion Energi.  The cushions and door panel inserts of the car will be made of materials inspired by Coke’s special PlantBottle technologyDeveloped in 2009, the PlantBottle is composed of 30% PET plastic which is made of plants and 70% PTA (purified terephthalic acid).  Less fossil fuel is used to produce PlantBottle plastic compared to producing 100% traditional plastic. Even though the bottle’s material isn’t 100% environmentally friendly, it is a huge step towards making commonly used plastic products more sustainable.  Ford is looking to debut the car at the Los Angeles Auto Show by the end of the month. 

With a little creative thinking and plastic manufacturing innovation, we can continue to improve plastic’s sustainability and decrease its carbon footprint.

What other stories have you come across regarding eco-friendly plastic manufacturing? Please share them in the comment section below.

Looking to learn more about plastic engineering?  Check out our complimentary Glossary of Plastic Manufacturing terms!

 

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