The word “sustainability” covers a lot of meanings in the plastics arena – and not all of them concern recycling, bioplastics, energy savings, or other “green” technologies that come to mind.
When talking about packaging, conventional notions of sustainability usually concern reducing material usage and increasing the use of recycled material and renewable materials and energy. The definition of “sustainable packaging” posted by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition includes these goals, plus others such as: Packaging material should be safe and healthy for the community throughout its life cycle, and manufactured using clean, optimized processes; and packaging should meet market criteria in terms of performance and cost, and be recoverable in industrial or biological closed-loop cycles. (And note that a key challenge is discovering how to clarify for consumers these many characteristics of sustainability.)
Across multiple plastics-consuming sectors, “sustainability” often refers more to the positive outcomes of plastics use, rather than just their composition, production, and disposal. Experts have gone so far as to argue that multiple uses of plastics generally allow the world population of seven billion people to sustain itself.
As a specific example, companies such as Bayer MaterialScience have developed uses of plastics that make automotive transportation more sustainable by reducing the weight of vehicles, improving their energy consumption efficiency, even for new electric vehicles.
And most architects want to use sustainable materials in building and construction for saving energy and earning points for green design. This was shown in a recent survey by IMRE which, however, also showed that “only one-quarter of both architects and interior designers believe their clients understand what the term ‘sustainability’ means.”
Then there’s also business sustainability – the need for a materials-producing company to survive, as green trends reduce material usage or bring new renewable alternative materials to the scene. In the plastics industry, sustainability trends have been connected with reduced the volume growth for conventional virgin plastics like PET, making it more difficult for companies that sell these materials to sustain themselves. (I guess here the definition of “sustainability” is also related to “irony.”)
Mike Tolinski is the author of Plastics and Sustainability, published in Oct. 2011 by Wiley-Scrivener, and he is Contributing Editor for Plastics Engineering magazine of the Society of Plastics Engineers in the USA. His views have been shaped by his engineering, university, and journalism experience in the plastics and manufacturing industries over the past 21 years.