Executive Vice President of Research, Material ConneXion
Senior Design Strategist
Demystifying plastics: Overcoming (mis)conceptions to create a sustainable product portfolio
Plastics as a class of materials is currently undergoing a PR nightmare, with its favorability ratings at ‘underwater’.
Ask the average consumer about their opinion on the material, and there will be answers from the extreme “we should get rid of all plastics!” to a more vague but still negative assertion that plastics are not good for the environment, and this has been heard loud and clear by brands. Everywhere you look, there are companies making commitments to reduce plastic usage, reports about recycling-intended plastic ending up in landfills, and local and state governments that are banning plastic usage for certain products.
While it’s true that there are certain applications that are not well-suited to plastics – predominantly single-use, throw-away products and packaging – what may be easy to miss in all these news bytes is that plastic can be a viable and valuable tool for sustainable product development when used purposefully.
The upside of plastics
Let’s start by looking at some of the positive aspects of plastic, then dig into how these benefits can be applied when developing sustainable product programs.
From the outset of plastic’s lifecycle, we find positive environmental impacts. We know that most materials rely on oil or some other source of energy to extract and create them, but plastic notably requires less energy to create than most other materials. Considering both the oil plastic is made from, and that which serves as energy to transform the raw ingredient into a usable material, plastic still requires less combined oil in its creation than materials like glass and even paper.
At the manufacturing stage, plastics again have an environmental advantage. Typically, plastic is easier to mold at much lower temperatures than materials like glass and metal, which means less energy is used in this phase of the lifecycle as well. Plastics are also faster to produce than paper-based materials, which leads to volume manufacturing and lower energy costs versus paper.
Beyond the straightforward energy savings in manufacturing, plastics are often easier to process and form into complex parts. This often leads to less waste being created during the manufacturing process, and the waste that is created is relatively easy to capture and turn into pre-consumer recycled content.
Then when those plastic parts or products are ready to be shipped to their next destination in the value chain, and to their final destination with the end consumer, the lightweight aspect of the material creates more positive impacts – the lighter the weight, the less fuel that’s needed to transport the material and the fewer emissions that are created.
In considering the use phase, plastics can be a great option because they can be engineered to be incredibly strong and long-lasting with minimal weight. This indicates they should really be used in the exact opposite way of what we often see – and instead for products that are meant to be durable and have a long lifespan.
When it comes to the end of life for materials, there are a lot of complexities to consider. At a basic level, when dealing with common commodity plastics (PP, PE, PET) that are in mono-material form, recycling of plastics will again have a lower impact than metal and glass (although in this case does have a higher impact than paper and wood). But because of the many end-of-life factors that we need to consider, let’s spend some more time digging into this phase of the life cycle.
…plastics should really be used in the exact opposite way of what we often see – and instead for products that are meant to be durable and have a long lifespan.
Tackling the end of life: what’s the deal with recycling anyway?
One of the big public pushbacks on plastics stems from the large number of single-use products that utilize plastic in their packaging or in the product itself, and then end up in a landfill in short order. After all, plastics are cheaper, easier to process, and lighter to ship… all the things that make them an easy “solution”! It is precisely these attributes though that have led us to undervalue the impact of plastics and treat them as “throw-away” materials rather than the great solutions they present. If we cared for them more (no one throws away gold, no matter how old) then we wouldn’t have the waste issue we have today.
Beyond the downfalls of having a “throw-away” culture, the issue is compounded because of the challenges that exist in recycling plastics. One of the big hurdles is the economics of it – plastic is expensive to collect and sort. There are thousands of different types of plastic, and they must be sorted into their individual types to be successfully recycled. There’s also just the technical difficulty of the process – a lot of plastic products are mixtures of several chemicals, which makes it hard to isolate a base material that can be recovered and reused. It’s also been found that plastic can often only be recycled once or twice before the chemicals start to break down. This means that it’s often cheaper and easier to just make a brand new replacement product. 
So how can we set plastic up for sustainable success at the end of life? It starts with identifying which plastics are easily and feasibly recyclable, then understanding the guidelines, benefits, and drawbacks that exist around the array of more complex plastic options that are out there to apply them in a meaningful way.
The best types of plastics to recycle are uncolored with no functional additives and that already have a widespread (national or global) recycling infrastructure. This generally applies to a limited number of plastics, namely PET water and soda bottles and HDPE milk jugs. When it comes to plastics such as ABS, acrylic, PC and nylon, single-stream recycling is possible for large amounts of clean parts, which means no paint, glue, lamination or other additions. However, the complexity here is that most curbside recycling programs won’t accept these plastics because they don’t have the equipment necessary to process it. Instead, you’re going to have to find your own recycler to take these plastics and might even have to ship the material there yourself.
Many plastics today include fillers, which are added to plastics for a variety of reasons, such as cutting production costs, improving the tensile strength, or increasing the heat resistance. Fillers that are inert and small, such as calcium carbonate, won’t negatively impact recyclability, but will make any transparent plastic opaque when added in as recycled content. On the other hand, fillers like glass fiber complicate recycling since separating the fibers and resin is complex and costly.
We also have to recognize that just because a plastic is promoted as more “sustainable” doesn’t automatically translate to “a plastic that is easily recyclable.” Plastics that contain natural fibers are one of the more contentious sustainable materials of the last decade. While they do reduce the amount of plastic used in a given application (after all, using 40% flax fiber means there’s 40% less plastic), they cannot be recycled. These composites also tend to result in using higher volumes of material overall because they can lack the strength of a plastic that is reinforced with a material like glass. However, considering that most of these natural-fiber-filled plastics are used for products that generally aren’t recycled anyways – like automotive panels, furniture, and ceiling panels  – the tradeoffs may certainly be worth it to reduce overall plastic usage.
Compostable plastics are another oft-misunderstood material option. Although this type of plastic has gained popularity as a sustainable option, what happens at the end of a compostable plastic product’s life is generally not what consumers would like to envision. Because the U.S. has so few commercial ‘industrial’ composting facilities – which is where the majority of compostable plastics have to be sent to properly degrade – these plastics often get sent to landfills. Composting requires oxygen, so if compostable containers end up in a landfill (which would generally be sealed tight and without oxygen) they may not break down, or may break down in a way that ends up releasing greenhouse gases like methane. And unfortunately, compostable plastic can’t easily be recycled, and can actually contaminate recycling streams if it’s mixed in with regular commodity plastics. [3, 4]
Multilayer laminates are another contentious material. Each layer of these plastics satisfies a different performance requirement, which ultimately allows for a reduction in product thickness (which means using less plastic overall) as compared to using mono-material plastic. But again, at the end of life there isn’t an easy way to recycle multilayer laminates, meaning they often end up in landfills. By comparison, a material like molded paper has the opposite challenge, in that it is much easier to recycle, but exacts a significantly higher carbon footprint and water usage due to processing.
This is all to say that it’s important to think about the full life cycle – including intended length of the use phase for a product and the end-of-life pathway – when choosing a material. Although a material option may have perceptions of sustainability – like being compostable, or replacing plastic content with natural fiber materials – those materials may not be the right choice if a product is intended for a short duration use phase, and will end up being routed to the landfill.
The next generation of recycling
There are new and exciting advancements being made in recycling. The existing approach is mainly mechanical recycling, which grinds up a plastic part into small particles or flakes before melting and processing those flakes into new parts. The push toward advanced recycling offers a way to take all kinds of plastics and turn them into something useful.
The first potential is to create new plastics again (known as ‘purification’). This is done by first breaking plastics down into their building blocks – simple monomers – in a decomposition process, which can be done with either heat or chemicals.
The other potential is to break plastics down and convert them into either fuel itself (known as pyrolysis) or synthetic gases which can in turn be used to produce fuel or other chemicals.
Advanced recycling allows for mixed plastics, low value plastics, foams, old tires and other unrecyclable materials to have a new life. It is not without its challenges though, since it can be costly and has limited volumes being recycled as there are few plants available. This means for now it is mostly post-industrial and very specific material feeds rather than something that can be used for everyday recycling of our consumer waste.
Designing a sustainable product program with plastics
What should be clear is that, when evaluating the environmental impact across the entire lifecycle, plastic has a lot to offer. Many plastics can take less energy to form, less energy to manufacture, less energy to ship, and less energy to recycle than other materials we might have to choose from. Even knowing that because plastics come from a non-renewable resource that has significant issues in successfully being recycled, there are still use cases that make great environmental sense. This includes products that are intended to be durable, long-lasting, and potentially have more circularity (versus being intended for recycle streams at the end of life).
But given all those negative news bytes we talked about at the beginning of this article, how can you and your company overcome the barriers and negative misconceptions among your product stakeholders, to make the most of what plastics can bring to a sustainable product portfolio?
Increase consumer awareness
A near-term strategy to overcoming negative stakeholder misconceptions is education – increasing consumer awareness of the merits of plastics. While there is certainly a marketing side to this approach, a more holistic strategy to education can help deliver truly relevant benefits of plastic to consumers, and ensure the message doesn’t fall flat (or even worse, be seen as greenwashing).
This starts with first understanding the functional and emotional benefits that consumers ideally want to experience in a product and tying that together with the exceptional ways in which plastic can deliver those benefits. This means focusing on how consumers want a product to work, and how they want it to make them feel, and understanding why plastic is uniquely suited to doing this well.
The way in which you share this story should also be purposeful – it may be through the packaging of your product, but may also require the founding of a new brand within a company that embodies this specific story – it really depends on what the product is that’s being brought to market, and the wants and needs of the stakeholders it has to appeal to and educate.
Change consumer behavior
The longer-term strategy to overcoming misconceptions involves changing consumer behavior – getting people to choose plastics for deeper and more meaningful reasons, and engage in a product’s circular lifecycle. This puts the sustainability aspect directly in consumers’ hands so they have a front-row seat to the positive impact plastics can make.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to how to do this, and you should thoughtfully strategize your approach with your internal team or innovation consultant. One clear way to change behaviors is simply with good design. By making a sustainable plastic product more desirable in the way it functions and in its ability to delight the user, it becomes highly likely that consumers will choose that product over the competition.
Another potential approach is to design circularity right into your product portfolio. This creates a “system” of products that are not only mutually supporting, but also encourage adoption and loyalty among consumers. There are a variety of ways a brand can incorporate circularity into a product system, depending on the product itself and the goals of consumers. It may take the shape of a “second-hand” model, where the brand offers to buy-back used and in-good-shape products from its consumers, then refurbishes those products and includes them as a secondhand offering in their portfolio at a discounted rate. There’s also the model where used products are returned to the brand, but rather than being refurbished, those products are broken down into some totally new product. In the case of plastics, these models give the material an extended life, keeping them out of the waste stream even longer than consumers may have thought possible. And when brands show the initiative and leadership to own the circularity of their products and materials, it can demonstrate to their consumers they not only value sustainability but are also willing to invest in its success.
Another potential approach is to design each product so it’s easy for consumers to take on sustainable behaviors without significant effort. This might mean capitalizing on plastic’s strength and longevity by using it for long-life durable goods, such as appliances or vacuums – this will almost automatically ensure those plastics experience a long use phase before they even need to be reused or recycled. Beyond explicit durable goods, companies can also design everyday plastic products for longevity – ensuring that a product is both durably made and embodies a timeless style that won’t go out of fashion before the functional end of life.
Designing to change consumer behaviors might also take the shape of designing for repairability – so often with products today, when something breaks on a product, it’s either impossible to take the product apart to fix the issue, or it’s so complex that the user has to take the product to a service shop, which could cost more than just tossing the product and replacing it with a new one. By designing plastic products for repairability, you can make it easy for consumers to take on their own repairs without exceptional skills or tools, and ultimately can help products last for many years. In the same vein, designing products for disassembly is another way to facilitate sustainability – this means making it easy to take a product apart and replace a component that may have broken, or easily sort different pieces into the relevant recycle streams.
Where do we go from here?
Sustainable product development is a critical part of a viable future for our planet, and everything that inhabits it. Developing a successful program requires arming yourself with holistic knowledge about the material solutions available, the direct and indirect impact of those materials across the entire life cycle, and a deep understanding of stakeholder needs and potential barriers to ensure we’re delivering meaningful solutions in an impactful way. If you’re ready for the sustainable revolution, Material ConneXion and Sundberg-Ferar can help!
To learn more about Material ConneXion and how to sign up for Material Insights, visit www.materialconnexion.com
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Demystifying plastics: Overcoming (mis)conceptions to create a sustainable product portfolio
Executive Vice President Research, Material Connexion
Dr. Andrew Dent, EVP of Materials Research at Material ConneXion and Chief Material Scientist at Material Bank, is known for his integrated approach to problem solving.
One of the world’s leading authorities on materials in design, Andrew has helped clients from start-ups and Fortune 500 companies take their products and spaces to the next level through innovative material selection and a unique cross-industry perspective.
Co-author of the Material Innovation book series published by Thames & Hudson, and a frequent speaker on sustainable material strategies at events such as TEDxGrandRapids and TEDNYC, Dr. Dent is ever ready to solve design problems with unexpected material solutions.
More thoughts from Andrew
Senior Design Strategist
With a background emphasizing the importance of combining both human desirability with engineering feasibility in design, Lauren has a deep passion for understanding the needs of people and how they translate to a business growth strategy.