The scramble among petroleum-based plastic manufacturers to be viewed as green and sustainable and to ward off environmental criticism is taking on an added dimension, if the Global Plastics Environmental Conference is any indication.
The focus on sustainability continues to gain momentum. But there also is an increased effort to counter claims of bioresin manufacturers that their resins and products have a better environmental footprint.
More and more companies and organizations are developing data that measure their total carbon footprint from greenhouse-gas emissions to energy and material use and recovery, and from resin to end-of-life.
A case in point: Heritage Bag Co. in Carrollton, Texas, is studying how the use of 10-20 percent recycled content in its bags would change the impact on the environment, product performance and the manufacturing process, said Lan Nguyen, technical director of Heritage Bag. Nguyen spoke during the Global Plastics Environmental Conference, held March 11-12 in Orlando. The event was sponsored by the Society of Plastics Engineers.
``Although it appears to be less green, the use of virgin resin at a reduced gauge of 16.6 percent is greener'' than many combinations with recycled content that Heritage has tested, said Nguyen. ``You use less energy and the handling, storage and transportation costs are lower.
``When you use recycled content, you reduce your costs per pound of material,'' he said, ``but you get inconsistencies in processing. There are fluctuations in the melt pressures and temperatures. It is more labor-intensive. And, if there is a change in the bubble size, you have to put in more air and that often generates more scrap.''
The bag testing is part of several initiatives Heritage has begun to see ``what we can do right now to contribute to a sustainable environment and still maintain or improve product performance,'' said Nguyen. ``We are looking at what we can do to reduce the use of nonrenewable resources, reduce solid waste, reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, reduce costs, as well as what we can do to practice the 3Rs: reuse, reduce and recycle.''
In a similar vein, using polypropylene, Simply Sustain LLC is developing a 200-page report comparing the sustainability of PP versus several bio-based resins, including polylactide acid, said Seetha Coleman-Kammula, co-founder of the Newark, Del., environmentally focused consulting firm.
``It is a very complex, evolving methodology and is easy to misuse for materials comparisons,'' said Coleman-Kammula.
In addition, the concerns about whether a product can be recycled at the end-of-life has triggered more emphasis on designing products to aid in disassembly or reduce the prospect of them ending up as litter.
To improve the recyclability of its vehicles, manufacturers are looking to ``commonalize'' the use of plastics, said Steve Sopher, technical director of JSP International in Butler, Pa., a supplier of engineered plastics foam.
``Companies are trying to commonalize materials to create enough mass for recyclable materials streams,'' he said. The effort is sparked, in part, by the European Union's restriction of hazardous substances directive. ``The goal is to design products with as many common elements as possible and make the products recyclable across the board.''
The EU's upcoming end-of-life directive for motor vehicles will further accelerate that push toward design for disassembly, he said. ``Over the next decade, 1,500 new dismantling plants are expected to be built in Western Europe. The goal is to reduce hidden costs to society.''
But what is ``green'' and ``clean'' still continued to perplex many at the conference.
Eric Koester, a lawyer who focuses on emerging companies in the clean technologies market, echoed what many at the conference discussed informally and posed in question-and-answer sessions after presentations.
``Just because it comes from plants is it really clean?'' asked Koester, who is based in the Seattle office of the Venture Law Group of Heller Ehrman LLP. ``Is the use of corn the best use of ethanol? Is recycling or biodegradability better?''
Koester also said it was too early to pick ``winners'' in the clean and green competition.
``Bioplastics are fairly young in its development,'' he said, with competition between agricultural-based, bio-tech based and those of microbial origin. ``No bets have been made that take any alternatives off the table. Companies who can use technology to produce tangible results'' will succeed.
However, one area that likely will continue to be fertile for bio-based manufacturers because of the green movement is in packaging, particularly food packaging, said Robert Dvorak, European project manager at Nextek Ltd. in London.
``There is a significant growth in organic foods and the desires of those companies are to have packaging that matches that,'' said Dvorak. ``Bioplastics companies see this as a point of differentiation.''
Dvorak pointed to the retail climate in Europe where Marks & Spencer Group plc has embarked on a $500 million plan and 18-month initiative to make themselves greener; the stated intent of food retailer J Sainsbury plc to have packaging that is recyclable or home compostable; and the $1 billion effort by food retailer Tesco plc to switch to packaging that is either bioplastic, or lightweight and recyclable.
``There is consumer sentiment for change in packaging and supermarkets and brand owners are under pressure to change because consumers expect them to solve solid waste issues,'' said Dvorak.