Chemistry & Life Sciences

Protecting and Conserving Food, Water and Energy

30.01.2014 -

Wrapping Up Efficiency - Plastics are indispensable for ecological and forward-looking strategies. They are the materials of choice, because they are lightweight and robust, their price-to-performance ratio is excellent, they allow great freedom of design, and - together with all their innovative characteristics and easy processing - they help to protect the environment. The latter will be the focus in October in Düsseldorf at the K 2013, the globally leading trade fair for plastics and rubber. The K, with this year's theme "K Makes the Difference," is the perfect platform to highlight that efficient energy use, effective climate protection and improved resource efficiency can be achieved only with plastics.
The fair traditionally includes a special exhibition. This time it's "Plastics Move the World!" It will be about how plastics move, not only in the word's direct sense, but also emotionally, for example in the arts and design, and the way future-oriented solutions to global megatrends such as population growth, energy consumption and reliable food supplies are brought forward by plastics.Plastics move the world forward and provide answers to society's major challenges. These challenges are just next door: Cities all over the world, especially the fast-growing megacities in developing and emerging countries, are a decisive factor when it comes to limiting climate change. They are both major emitters of greenhouse gases and victims of the consequences. Obviously, improved energy and resource efficiency is in the interest of these cities.

Energy-Efficient Housing

Buildings still consume 40% of global energy, just for heating and cooling. Logically, the savings potential is enormous: Modern polymer heat insulation for buildings can reduce their energy requirements by more than 70%. Thanks to plastics, 3-liter houses - using only 3 liters of heating oil per square meter annually - are already a fact, at least in middle Europe. Zero-energy buildings with super heat insulation and high-efficiency plastic windows become ever more popular. There are even houses generating their own power, thereby leading to immense reductions of carbon dioxide emissions. Plastics make it possible.

Smart Use of Renewable Energy Sources

Urban planning needs to give equal importance to safety, affordability and environmental soundness. Plastics have a prime role, for example, in efficient electricity production from alternative energy sources. Solar panels are insulated, water-proofed and protected by plastic components. In the near future, high-efficiency solar cells will simply be printed onto thin, transparent plastic sheets. They stick to windows and facades, enabling flexible and efficient use. Modern wind-energy plants, which, for example, can supply electricity from the seaside to densely populated regions, are largely made possible by innovative solutions from the plastics industry. Huge rotor blades up to 60 meters long consist of polymer composite materials and withstand enormous stress.

Sustainable Solutions for Water Supplies

Permanent access to clean drinking water and adequate sanitation are vital for the future of large cities. Infrastructures, especially in developing countries, are quite often congested and ailing. Resilient and extensive water-supply systems and effective and sustainable wastewater management are key for reducing water consumption and protecting ground and surface waters. Plastic materials ensure sustainable infrastructures, for example, with reliable water collection and transport facilities.
Plastic pipes are highly suitable to transport drinking water over large distances because they prevent contamination. The plastics themselves meet highest standards for drinking water contact. Furthermore, plastic pipes are extremely resilient: When fitted properly, their useful life can extend to 100 years. Leakage at joints can almost be excluded; precious drinking water rarely seeps into the ground.All this also goes for the safe transport of wastewater, where it is crucial that no drop is lost and contamination by wastewater is minimized.
In many parts of the world, high quality clean water is recovered from wastewater with the help of membrane filter systems. Such recovered water mostly goes into industrial uses, which eases the strain on the natural water resources.

Yet one more example: Plastic filters in mobile or stationary water-treatment plants directly convert large volumes of polluted water into drinking water. This dramatically reduces the risk of gastrointestinal diseases in many developing countries - in a simple manner, effective and at low cost.

Resource Efficiency Is Everywhere

Plastics contribute to resource conservation in numerous other instances, particularly in densely populated regions where mobility is a crucial issue. Plastic materials reduce the weight of automobiles, trains and airplanes, resulting in lower fuel consumption. This should not be underrated, because transport accounts for one-fourth of the world energy consumption.

Moreover, in some developing and emerging countries up to 50% of foodstuffs go to waste, because, among other things, they are not adequately protected in transport and storage. Plastic packaging preserves all types of goods, but especially food: The products remain fresh longer and do not perish so easily. This improves the security of food supplies and considerably reduces energy consumption, since what is not lost to spoilage does not need to be newly produced and transported.

Given the very low weight of polymer materials, huge amounts of product can be packed with small amounts of plastic. If other materials in the packaging sector replaced plastics, the mass of packaging would increase by an average factor of 3.6. Energy consumption would rise by a factor of 2.2, with greenhouse gas emissions climbing by a factor of 2.7. This corresponds to the total CO2 emissions in Denmark.

The long and the short of the matter: Plastics are essential for moving people - be it emotionally, over geographical distances or through access to new technologies and their achievements. One last example: 3-D printing might revolutionize markets even more than the Internet did. 3-D printing enables people to simply print objects - thoughts become reality. Already printed goods include stylish shoes, guitars and windsurf boards, and there are even high-flying ideas to print complete jumbo jets. Plastics, the material for the 21st century, are still young, and there is more to come.



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