Cleaning up the plastics industry – and our environment

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Packaging is essential. Whether it is glass, aluminum, or plastics, it is how consumers receive their goods. As part of South Carolina’s $30 billion manufacturing ecosystem, plastic packaging in aerospace and aviation, automotive manufacturing, biotechnology, and life sciences secure relative materials for both their production and distribution.

Brian Kuney, a regional VP for the South Carolina Manufacturing Extension Partnership, summarizes this necessary exchange by saying, “The diversity of plastics applications continues to increase each year and is good for the industry’s prospects and its ability to welcome new workers into its ranks.”

And with plastics playing a significant role as “packager” in this market, Sara Shumpert, director of the Packaging School in Greenville, cited packaging as a vital link in the global supply chain that enables South Carolina to distribute its goods across the state and around the world.

Whether its needs are industrial or something as simple as a retail bag, the physical properties and environmental impact of plastic products make them a more attractive packaging option than glass or aluminum.

Plastic is a complex organic molecule and can be made from fossilized or recently living plants – but it is simply organic molecules. And although some see plastics as a menace to the environment, the view is somewhat misconstrued as “greener” and additional “earth-friendly” options become available.

Fundamentally, it is the job of the manufacturer to educate the consumer while also providing environmentally minded products and services.

And now the Federal Trade Commission is helping some of us spread the word.

In October 2012, the commission released a set of “green” guidelines designed to hold companies to truthful standards when marketing their products.

Whether it be compostable or some form of degradable, a company’s marketing claims must include competent and reliable scientific data for validation. Most of the claims involve the recyclability of the product or directly address its end of life as compostable, oxo-degradable, or biodegradable.

The biodegradation of plastic products means they can be decomposed by bacteria and other living organisms at the microbial level. However, achieving biodegradation is another question entirely.

Compostable products require commercial facilities designed to rapidly break down organic materials into nutrient-rich soil amendment for resale value. However, facilities like this are not readily available to most consumers. And although oxo-degradable products include additives that speed up degradation, the completion of the process requires the presence of oxygen.

However, landfills receive 81 million tons of discarded plastic each year and are anaerobic environments, meaning there is a lack of oxygen. Nearly 90 percent of U.S. municipal solid waste, including plastics, ends up in landfills.

Today’s highly engineered landfills operate under strict federal and state regulations to ensure the protection of health and the environment, while managing and converting biogas into clean energy, which provide power to industries, heat for homes, and fuel for vehicles.

The industry is also advancing carbon sequestration in landfills to prevent the gas from re-entering the atmosphere.

What does this mean? Perhaps the solution lies in the existing infrastructure?

With this in mind, companies can offer additives to their manufacturing processes and address the end-of-life sequence from the beginning. Moreover, there is no need to change consumer habits or existing infrastructure. The appropriate additive enables discarded plastics to biodegrade in an anaerobic environment and convert into clean energy.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Information Administration, the solid waste industry currently produces nearly half of America’s renewable energy.

In addition to a change in the manufacturing processes, environmentally minded companies can effect change in their own facilities, products, and services.

Companies should promote “greener” products with the most scientific and objective research behind them and provide options to help customers decrease the amount of plastic needed to create a product. Through the reduction, reuse, and recycling of plastic goods, the material’s life is not only extended, but it is lighter weight and will require less time to break down.

It is also critical companies prominently display these innovations on their websites, sales collateral, and other associated materials.

Whether it is 100 percent biodegradable products or disruptive additives, consumers and potential customers should have easy access to information that could do more than clean up the plastics industry – it could clean up our living space as well.

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