Resources will always be consumed while there is life on Earth. The principles of sustainability dictate that each generation uses the resources at its disposal as efficiently as possible so that succeeding generations can enjoy the same standard of living. Plastics and the plastics industry have made a great contribution to resource efficiency, but often find themselves on the defensive. Yet a knowledge of the various relationships involved provides enough material to go on the offensive with arguments illustrating the benefits of material and technology.
Saving energy and producing environmental friendly energy with plastics
The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of developed countries shall progressively be uncoupled from the use of fossil resources and the emissions of CO2 caused thereby. Plastics can serve enormous amounts of energy and slash CO2 emissions from buildings, traffic and transport, and industrial production. When comparing products regarding their eco-balances, those made of plastic are often the winners.
Thermal insulation of buildings using plastic foams is clearly superior to conventional isolation materials and its energy savings compensate for the energy used for its production after two years already. Cooling devices for households and gastronomy are that energy efficient since they are insulated using plastic foam, and modern energy saving lighting is impossible without plastics. Vehicles and aircraft are manufactured using increasing amounts of plastics to reduce their energy consumption. Energy generation from renewable resources is largely depending on plastics: wind turbine rotors are always made of fiber-reinforced plastics, flexible photovoltaics and fuel cells are inconceivable without plastics.
Energy, machine, and labor efficient plastics processing
Since plastics rather are the more expensive material it is not their costs, but their energy and cost efficient processing that leads to substituting conventional materials by plastics. Combination and integration of processes are pushed to further reduce energy, machine, and labor expenditures. Further reduction of the already acquired low energy consumption of continuously operating units like extruders and injection molding machines is an ongoing challenge for engineers.
Material efficiency using plastics
It is a need for product engineers to always save as much material (costs and weight) as possible, be it by intelligent design, by less expensive materials, or by using recyclates. High collection and recovery rates of plastics waste assure for avoiding environmental pollution and even marine littering. Plastics wastes are sought-after resources in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland nowadays and material recycling is becoming more and more attractive. Using renewable raw materials also constitutes long-term material efficiency since fossil resources stay untouched for longer. Making use of CO2 wastes as a raw material for plastics production is becoming feasible on a large scale.
Plastics technology is resource conservation technology
Plastic is a “resource-conservation“ material which benefits society much more than is publically perceived. Plastics win the day in many eco-balances as they save enormous amounts of fossil-based energy and slash CO2 emissions from buildings, transport and industrial production. On top of that: plastics are too valuable to throw away. Users and consumers need to care for the environment wherever they are. The constant pursuit of engineers for high machine, labor, and material efficiency in plastics processing will further increase resource efficiency of this group of materials.