If there was any doubt as to how quickly the issues of sustainability and bio-based resins have shot to the front of plastics firms' agendas, the Global Plastics Environmental Conference, held March 6-7 in Orlando, erased it.
Despite competing sessions, nearly every presentation on bio-based and biodegradable materials was standing-room-only and elicited a barrage of questions focused on how well they work and where efforts to bring such products to market stand.
Company after company repeated the same mantra - that they are working to develop products from renewable resources or on projects designed to improve end-of-life product recycling, or both.
``We need to be more proactive and be environmentally responsive to stop the depletion of natural resources,'' said Srikanth Ghantae, a senior technology specialist at Volvo North America in Greensboro, N.C.
Ghantae, who focuses on heavy-truck design, said Volvo is looking into using plant-based fibers to make truck parts. He also said the company is encouraged by what it has seen of the new Valox iQ and Venoy iQ resins made by GE Plastics in Pittsfield, Mass. The resins are made with polybutylene terephthalate-based polymers derived from 85 percent post-consumer plastic waste.
``For [original equipment manufacturers] to use recycled materials, [the materials] need to be economically viable and retain their value after processing,'' he said. ``The new GE resins are very promising and a good example of value-added recycled materials.''
Even so, plastics use is on the rise - and that is unlikely to change soon. Therefore, Ghantae said, Volvo is looking at making some of its plastic parts easier to recycle by manufacturing them in colors, to eliminate painting.
``Plastics are replacing other materials very quickly in the all the trucks and it is more challenging to recycle all the scrap,'' Ghantae said. ``We will also incorporate recycled materials into trucks at some point in the future.''
Mechanical engineer Hameed Khan at Rieter Automotive Systems in Farmington Hills, Mich., said Rieter, similarly, is moving from total quality management into total life-quality management. The firm is a subsidiary of Rieter Group of Winterthur, Switzerland.
``Vehicle OEMs are embracing sustainable mobility. They are requesting an increased content of biomaterials in their components,'' Khan said. ``For 45 years, there has been no consideration for sustainability. We must develop an acoustics package designed with biomaterials. We must now emphasize design for materials based on biomaterials. We want to close the loop.''
The firm's main motivations are to improve recyclability, reduce its environmental impact and conserve energy, Khan said. He said initial tests have found that acoustic products made from natural fibers are lighter and less strong, but offer better dampening performance. That makes using them in structural-component designs difficult, he said, but not in trim. As a result, bio-based materials are being used in such parts as under-floor panels and spare-wheel covers. Also, cotton fibers are being used in floor insulation under auto carpets and for dash parts.
Susan Kozora, a Visteon Corp. engineer in Van Buren Township, Mich., near Romulus, said the auto supplier is looking at how to use a mix of recycled ABS and polystyrene.
``We are looking at whether we can consolidate the two recycled resins and do it as a standard practice,'' she said. Initial tests, using various combinations of regrind and pellets, suggest no dramatic differences in impact strength, she said.
``Our projects show it would be worthwhile to go ahead with plant-level testing,'' using 20 percent prime resin and a 50-50 mix of recycled and virgin materials, Kozora said. ``We would like to keep it in-house and get more bang for the buck'' - rather than sell the resin to others.
The urge to conserve also has increased U.S. firms' interest in reusable pallets and containers, said Fred Hepinstall, vice president of the Reusable Pallet and Container Coalition in Washington. Their use is 10 times higher in Europe, but he expects the number of injection molded polyethylene reusable containers in the U.S. to jump fivefold, to 1 billion in the next 10 years.
``You are looking at raw material use reduction and waste reduction,'' said Hepinstall, ``and the value of the crate at life's end - typically seven years - is the value of the polymer.''
He said firms that express the greatest interest in reusable packaging are those that have had high volumes of solid waste, recurring product damage or risk of product damage, and those using expensive single-use packaging.
He said automotive companies, and retailers like Wal-Mart, are turning to reusable containers to reduce costs. They also account for 8 percent of containers used by meat packagers, compared with just 1 percent two years ago, and are expected to snare 80 percent of that market during the next four to five years, Hepinstall said, since most meats are being shipped to grocers shelf-ready.
The renewed interest in recycling in America has not gone unnoticed outside the United States.
``The citizens of the United States are becoming more cognizant about the environment and that it is not a throwaway society,'' said Anthony Georges, sales and marketing vice president for Amut North America, a Woodbridge, Ontario, manufacturer of plastics recycling technology.
``There is a tremendous amount of interest in recycling, especially in California where the government is giving grants to recycling initiatives,'' he said. ``But, throughout North America, we are seeing more and more collection and, therefore, more interest in recycling. The profits for businesses are going to be there if you have a sufficient amount of material.''
``You don't have sustainability if material can't be collected,'' agreed Mike Schedler, technical director of the National Association of PET Container Resources in Sonoma, Calif. ``There will be a lot more pressure to recycle or die. I think the reality is that if we don't pay attention to these market developments and the public sentiment, we can be forced out of business.
``Governments are demanding higher diversion of materials from landfills and higher recycling rates,'' he said. ``We have to put more focus on design for recycling principles. If we don't come up with solutions and ideas, we will disappear. This is our bottom line that is at stake.''