Photo: Simone Smith / Flickr
This is the second piece in a three-part series about recycling and the efforts of the Plasticity Forum.
Last week, we introduced you to the Plasticity Forum, an organization that works to bring designers, innovators, economists and all-around thinkers to the table to discuss plastic pollution and what should be done about it. Economy and recovery were our previous topics. This week, we’ll examine plastic design and how it’s being used for more environmentally friendly missions.
Pre-Designed for Recyclability
As mentioned in part one, plastic is an inexpensive material that allows manufacturers to safely package their products while saving money. Nothing wrong with putting cheap materials to good use, except our lack of recycling efforts have led to some nasty repercussions, especially when one considers where plastic comes from.
As Stuart Clark of the FOY Group says, plastic is often derived from petrochemicals, which makes it reusable for what he calls “road-ready fuel.” His company brings recovered plastic back to its original liquid form through a process known as pyrolysis, which melts it through the application of extreme heat. It is turned into diesel and petrol fuel, providing energy for our ever-hungry economy, so in some ways, most plastic comes pre-designed for recyclability.
In terms of origin, plastic is comprised of both organic and synthetic compounds, flexible enough to be molded into solid shapes. High levels of molecules group together to form polymers; mixing them with a few additional ingredients like polylactic acid and cellulosics gets you a nice little hunk of plastic. From there, injection molding machines are employed to give plastic specific shapes. After all, molecules don’t come in Lego form; they’re made that way through the manufacturing processes.
Biodegradability: A Double-Edged Sword
The trouble is, there are elements of plastic’s design that many of us take advantage of or inherently misread.
Trish Hyde, CEO of the Australian Packaging Covenant (APC), recently discussed the biodegradability of plastic parts with Planet Experts. She acknowledges that while plastics have a very useful role in extending a product’s life, safety and usability, people often read too much into the “biodegradable” aspect, and this is undoubtedly harming our natural environment.
“We face a difficult situation,” she says. “The concept of ‘more environmentally friendly plastics’ is contextual, and needs to be treated with care. Telling a consumer that a package is biodegradable has benefits and is accurate, but it may lead to the perverse outcome that a consumer thinks it is OK to leave it in the environment. That is what we have seen in Australia. Ultimately, there need to be clearer guidelines.”
Trish has been a member of Plasticity Forum since March 2016. The primary goal of her organization is to develop more sustainable designs for plastic products, though she admits this is hardly an easy feat. For the most part, plastic can be a good thing; the environmental footprint of plastic is relatively small when compared to those of greenhouse gases such as carbon and methane, and plastic makes transporting products, like food, safer and cheaper. The downside, however, is that packaging and plastic pieces often wind up where they don’t belong.
“Not all plastics have sound recycling markets,” she explains. “And through our own behavior, pieces of plastic packaging end up in our natural environment.”
The Quest for Cleaner Plastics
Steve Russell, Vice-President of the American Chemistry Council, was kind enough to offer his thoughts on design. His organization works with companies to develop technology for making plastic far more efficient and lightweight, thus making it faster and easier to break down.
“Plastic bottles have gotten thinner and the caps have gotten tinier,” he says, giving an example of a recent change to plastic design. “We work with organizations to make packaging more efficient, and we work to make car parts lighter.”
The unfortunate side, says Clark, is that not all plastic is molded into recyclable forms or products, and this ultimately causes problems down the line.
Steve Davies, a public affairs officer at NatureWorks, spoke with us about polystyrene (styrofoam, for example), is a type of plastic that’s still commonly used today. Polystyrene has stirred mountains of controversy amongst environmentalists, who take note of its sluggish biodegrade time. It is also a common form of litter that is usually found along coastlines and Pacific shores. Polystyrene’s most recognized form is that of packing peanuts.
Davies says many companies are trying desperately to get away from polystyrene and create plastics through cleaner resources such as lactic acid, which is made organically in the human body. His company NatureWorks is also exploring this route.
“We’re a materials company and producer,” he says. “We convert greenhouse gases into functional materials. We capture greenhouse gases by growing plants, which then absorb them through photosynthesis. We harvest the plants, and we use the sugars to create lactic acid. We then industrialize it, and our clients use it in things like diapers and baby wipes.”
For the most part, plastic’s design is already meant to make certain products recyclable, but sometimes, its final or lasting form and user behavior prevents this from occurring properly. Davies also says consumers need to pay attention to the kinds of plastic they’re buying, and help make recovery efforts consistent.
“Pay more attention to packaging,” he recommends. “Products often arrive in their primary packaging. Then there’s secondary packaging, so you basically have a package within a package. Then it’s shrink-wrapped, so you have three packages. We need to choose products with less packaging, and be careful about what kind of packing we use. We also need to employ compostable means. Put stuff in the right bins. There’s bins for recycling, organic food waste, and compostable material. We need to pay attention to these things.”
If you’d like to get involved with the Plasticity Forum, be sure to check out their upcoming events: Innovating for Scale, Recovery and Reuse in Dallas, Texas on April 21, 2017; and Technology, Design and Knowledge — Driving Plastic Sustainability in Anaheim, California on May 9, 2017.