Marine Litter, Tighter Regulations, Progressive Digitalization

In the Run-up to K Show 2019, the Global Plastics and Rubber Industry Has Many Challenges Ahead of it

  • Plastics are used in a variety of products - from healthcare to mobility, from communication devices to toys. Thus the statement is true that "erasing plastics from our lives is just a beautiful utopia." © XXLPhoto/Shutterstock Plastics are used in a variety of products - from healthcare to mobility, from communication devices to toys. Thus the statement is true that "erasing plastics from our lives is just a beautiful utopia." © XXLPhoto/Shutterstock
  • Plastics are used in a variety of products - from healthcare to mobility, from communication devices to toys. Thus the statement is true that "erasing plastics from our lives is just a beautiful utopia." © XXLPhoto/Shutterstock
  • China is the largest producer of plastics, followed by Europe and NAFTA. © PlasticsEurope
  • Plastics make a very efficient use of resources, especially during the use phase. © PlasticsEurope

The world plastics production, according to the PlasticsEurope Market Research Group (PEMRG)/Conversio Market & Strategy, almost reached 350 million tons in 2017. China is the largest producer of plastics, followed by Europe and NAFTA. Although in 2018 production in all plastics sectors fell after the strong growth in the previous year, it can be expected that in the long term plastics production will show a continuous growth due to increasing use of products made of plastics all over the world, in particular in countries with an emerging middle class.

But media coverage of the rising levels of plastic pollution in the environment including the oceans - although mainly caused by the thoughtless handling of plastics by consumers and predominantly in certain world regions - have damaged the reputation of the plastics industry and prompted the governments of many countries around the world to issue bans on plastic products. While plastic waste might be a major source of environment pollution, not all plastic can be banned. Some of its applications are important and cannot be replaced with other materials.

The international trade fair “K”, held every three years in Duesseldorf, Germany, draws a great concentration of plastics and rubber expertise and by doing so it shows ways to meet current and future challenges of the industry with sustainable, long-term solutions. Four topics have been chosen for K 2019: Plastics for Sustainable Development & Circular Economy, Digitalization and the Plastics Industry 4.0, System Integration: Functionality through Material, Process and Design, and Young Talents in the Industry.

The 2017 series of the European Youth Debating Competition, a series launched by the European Petrochemical Association (EPCA) and PlasticsEurope, targeting young students and encouraging them to exchange on the contribution of petrochemistry and plastics in the digital age, showed how important and complex the topic is.

While the students acknowledged the usefulness of modern products made from petrochemicals and plastics, they also questioned their necessity and scrutinized their impact on the environment. The millennials did not only think about topics that are everyday subjects in their own life in the industrialized countries of Europe but also dealt with issues of their peers in third-world countries. One participant put the topic in a nutshell by stating: “erasing plastics (from our lives) is just a beautiful utopia.”

Sustainability, Circularity, Digitalization and Integration

Sustainability is an aspect that always has to be considered when producing and processing plastics and rubber. This applies to “Industry 4.0” or “Industrial Internet of Things” (IIoT). No industrial sector can afford to ignore the increasing spread and reach of digitalization. The road to the smart factory of the future should be followed with a balanced mix of purpose and prudence, giving due attention to the potential gains and risks.

Today digital control modules, apps and services are already capable of speeding up industrial processes, providing powerful support to users and operators, helping to make manufacturing and processing flows more flexible.

However, transferring business-related processes to virtual spaces does harbor risks, such as theft of sensitive data as a result of cyber-attacks. These are threats that enterprises have to guard against.

Polymers are powerful, versatile, transformable and resource-conserving materials. Their secret is that their composition can be tweaked to adapt them perfectly to the intended application. The key lies partly in the very broad selection of available polymer types, but also in additives, which help to adjust the polymer properties to users’ needs, whether soft and flexible, rigid and flameproof, extremely tough and strong, colored or bacteria-repellent. The variations may be tiny, but they make all the difference in terms of marketing and use.

When it comes to protection from head impact or shock injuries, as well as protecting car passengers from impact injuries during accidents or even to safely seal off liquid-based systems hence preventing leaks, plastic and rubber materials have the best protective properties. In their role as protectors, polymers offer an incredibly diverse application spectrum (bulletproof vests, rubber gloves, helmets, etc.).

Their usefulness is increased when they not only offer perfect protection, but also enhance comfort. Polymer materials can do both. Plastics are lightweights and they can be designed to withstand extreme pressure, high impact and chemical effects.

The huge variety of polymers in the market poses great challenges for recyclers processing waste plastics into materials that are fit for use in high-quality applications. This can be done more easily when single grades of plastics like PET bottles are processed. However, upcycling becomes difficult – if not impossible – when the waste consists of similar plastics with only slight differences, so that the only solution is to downcycle them.

In order to understand the life cycle of plastic products it is important to understand that not all plastic products are the same and not all have the same service life. Some plastic products have a shelf life of less than one year, some others, have a lifespan of more than 15 years and some have a service life of 50 years or even more. Thus, from production to waste, different plastic products have different life cycles, and this is why the volume of collected waste cannot match, in a single year, the volume of production or consumption.

From 2006 to 2016 the volumes of plastic waste collected for recycling increased by 79%, energy recovery increased by 61% and landfill decreased by 43%. In 2016, for the first time, recycling overtook landfill. Countries with landfill restrictions of recyclable and recoverable waste have, on average, higher recycling rates of plastic post-consumer waste.

Up to now, most recycled materials have been mainly single-grade PET recovered from packaging materials. However, other synthetic materials such as recycled fishing nets and marine litter salvaged from the oceans are being used with increasing frequency.

Companies large and small, operating both globally and locally, have begun to thoroughly reassess how to handle polymer materials. The objective is to devise rational, appropriate and responsible ways of using plastics.

Not all possible solutions have been exploited yet, though. Specialists are needed to point out sound methods of harvesting plastic litter from the environment and the oceans so that it can be upcycled to make new products.

K Show 2019

In the run-up to this year’s K edition in mid-October, several companies have already presented their newest products and concepts, which will be on display in Duesseldorf. Among these manufacturers are Asahi Kasei, BASF, Clariant, Covestro, Lanxess, SABIC and Wacker. Follow the links to learn more.

At K 2019, Clariant will shine a light on collaborative sustainability projects specifically focused on plastics’ recycling.

SABIC has come one step closer to creating a circular economy by scaling up an innovative chemical recycling process.

Asahi Kasei and GLM, an electric vehicle manufacturer, have completed a jointly developed concept car focused on contribution to safety, comfort, and the environment.

Covestro developed lightweight and functional materials that reduce fuel consumption and extend the range of electric vehicles.

Many companies are working on improving the recyclability of plastics; BASF is contributing with the ChemCycling project.

At the trade fair, Lanxess will be focusing primarily on the topics of new mobility, urbanization and digitalization.

Wacker will be showcasing new products including fire-resistant silicone elastomers and self-adhesive silicone rubber grades with extremely low-friction surfaces.

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