Two weeks ago I had a chance to attend and present at the yearly Global Plastics Environmental Conference (GPEC) in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, organized by SPE’s Plastics Environmental Division. The level of serious technical discussion was high, and the attendees were full of expert knowledge about all the sustainability issues plastics makers and users are facing. The deep questions posed by the audience after each presentation showed the complexity of plastics’ environmental issues.
Also on display were numerous ways in which companies are trying to shrink the environmental footprint of plastic packaging. Here recycling was still the main focus, relative to bio-based/biodegradable innovations.
Plastics’ share of recycled packaging materials is increasing, but even with greater volumes of material, recycling rates remain relatively low (in the USA, at least). So there’s great pressure on makers and retailers that create and use packaging -- so much pressure that at least one high-end “green” grocer is asking some suppliers to switch from plastic packaging back to glass, in response to some customers’ dislike of plastic.
This was reported in a GPEC plenary speech by Craig Cookson, Director of Sustainability & Recycling for the Plastics Division of the American Chemistry Council (ACC). He added that the ACC is trying to get the retailer to understand and explain the advantages of plastic packaging to customers -- its lower energy consumption in production, low density, unbreakable durability, recyclability (though sometimes limited), and so forth.
Later at the conference it was shown that recyclability and recycled-content go hand-in-hand. GPEC’s Environmental Stewardship Award-winning companies in the USA this year mostly dealt with recycling plastic packaging. Here’s a quick run-down about some of the winners:
- BD (Becton, Dickinson and Company) in New Jersey, for a program that recovers used medical plastics, such as vials, for recycling back into non-medical applications;
- Futuris Automotive Interiors (US) Inc. in Michigan, for developing “a moldable, tufted PET carpet” made with post-consumer PET;
- Axion International in New Jersey, for incorporating recovered polyolefins into structural composite materials for use in bridges, railroad ties, and other structures; and
- Lehigh Technologies in Georgia, which turns rubber from discarded automobile tires into micronized powders that can be used as fillers in plastics and new tires.
At the end of his award acceptance speech, Lehigh CEO Alan Barton made his view clear about the importance of recycling, in comparison with incineration and energy recovery, simply stating: “Burning plastics is not an option.” But more about this issue next time.
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 from 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.