How Green is my Product?

Under the heading of “How Green is my Product?”, BEC Group is publishing a series of blogs and articles that look at the challenges of manufacturing products that are genuinely ‘green’ – reusable, recoverable, remanufacturable and (if all else fails!) recyclable. As well as materials, we will look at practicalities, applications and testing, and commercial realities.

CUTTING THROUGH

Is reuse the same as recycling? Does recycling truly recycle or is it downcycling? What is ‘greenwashing’? The language of ‘green manufacturing’ and environmental awareness is riddled with phrases and terminology that can be misunderstood, are confusing and, sometimes, downright misleading. We cut through the fog to provide a clear and easy-to-use reference tool that can help the effective participation in the ‘circular economy’ (see below), which is claimed to be potentially worth around US$4.5 trillion.

1. Biodegradable

The dictionary definition is a material is “capable of being decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms and thereby avoiding pollution.” In practice, it is not as easy as tossing a bag into a compost heap and letting nature take its course. Pretty much everything will break down eventually but plastic, for example, can take a very long time. A study by Plymouth University’s International Marine Litter Research Unit found that plastic bags claimed to be biodegradable were largely undamaged and still able to carry shopping three years after being buried in soil or left in sea water.

2. Compostable

Able to be broken down by natural organic processes although catalysts are often required. A compostable bag in the Plymouth University experiment mentioned above seemed to have broken down completely but traces were detectable in the soil 27 months later.

3. Circular economy

A system that builds long-term resilience, generates business and economic opportunities, and provides environmental and societal benefits. Waste is eliminated because everything is recovered, reused, remanufactured and recycled.

4. Downcycling

A form of recycling that reuses material and converts it into a different product. An example would be recycling post-consumer (i.e., used) plastic bottles into clothing, such as fleeces, and from there into NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) insulation in motor vehicles. It delays disposal to landfill – sometimes for decades, allowing time for effective recycling or disposal technology to emerge – but does not eliminate it.

5. Greenwashing

False or misleading claims of environmentally responsible or eco-friendly practices and behaviour. Examples could include ‘eco-friendly cigarettes’, ‘flushable wipes’ and single-use plastic packaging with scenes from nature on their labels. Also, investment in eco-friendly research that looks impressive but involves tiny amounts of money. Digging into ‘corporate social responsibility’ claims can often unearth examples of window dressing and greenwashing.

6. Recovery and Reuse

At first glance, the most effective manifestation of the circular economy. Products are recovered and reused in their existing form. For example: glass bottles. They can simply be washed, sterilised and then used again in exactly the same form and for the same purpose. The caveat is that the energy and chemical cost of cleaning can be high, the expense of transporting heavy items can be significant and it is not infinite.

7. Recyclable

Materials that can be recycled are described as recyclable. That doesn’t mean that they will be; only that they can be.

8. Recycling

Recycling is not Reuse; it is the recovery, reprocessing and reuse of materials, rather than complete products. Aluminium cans, for example, have a well-functioning collection and reprocessing infrastructure and are made almost entirely from recycled aluminium. Metallic components of automobiles are, increasingly, made from recycled material, also.

9. Remanufacture

Returning a worn or used product to at least original performance specification. An established practice in the auto industry; the market potential in the EU is estimated to be EUR 90bn by 2030.

10. Sustainable

Practices that are profitable can be described as ‘sustainable’. In environmental terms, it means the use of materials in ways that do not exhaust the supply. The term is often used misleadingly in greenwashing (see above).

11. Sustainably sourced

Materials obtained from sources that are managed so as to be sustainable. Examples include fast-growing woodland, such as willow for fencing and some domestic items; pine for furniture; and conserved fisheries.

As specialists in plastic injection moulding, BEC Group has a strong interest in researching and developing sustainable processing and uses of polymers. In this series we will look at materials and processes that are already available for sustainable manufacture and at new developments. We will consider the properties materials must have and how suppliers, contractors and OEMs can work together to improve the image and usefulness of plastics in manufacturing.

We’re here to help.  If you’ve got any questions about choosing materials for your next plastic injection moulding project then please give us a call on 01425 613131.