Advancing the Lifecycle of Performance Plastics
by John Homa, Indelco Plastics

luid system applications and components made with performance plastics are abundant in factories and processing facilities. The right engineered plastic can stand up to hazardous chemicals and can last longer than other materials, contributing to bottom line cost savings. The more we see performance plastics excel in these applications, the more our customers trust the materials. There’s strength in that trust that we must maintain as an industry looked upon by outsiders as susceptible contributors to the growing environmental pollution problem. Together we would be wise to tune in to the growth of recycling of performance plastics industry segment.

Context: Scope of the chemical industry

There are thermoplastics that are 100 percent inert to corrosive chemicals across the entire pH range. So adaptive are these compounds that companies using polymers and thermoplastics find more efficient ways to mix, store and dissolve heavier concentrations, while removing the waste caused after these desired reactions. Corrosion and contamination can be preempted while significantly reducing cost, weight and maintenance time.

In the United States, the chemical industry is a $3.9 trillion market and one of the largest manufacturing segments. It is also one of the top exporting sectors. The chemical industry supports a quarter of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). More than 96 percent of all manufactured goods are touched by chemistry. New chemistries and the integration of new polymers are vital to the ongoing success of American manufacturing.

Recycling infrastructure

Science works both ways: the development of new polymers as well as finding innovative ways to recycle them. Chemists can help kickstart a second industrial revolution based on sustainable resources by engaging with industry leaders and stakeholders across the sciences to develop a recycling infrastructure.

Companies are taking several approaches to sustainability. Some are looking to reduce dependence on fossil feedstocks; for example, by using degradable and recyclable alternatives in their polymer product ranges. (Feedstock is any renewable biological material that can be used as a fuel or converted to another form of fuel or energy product.) Other companies offer greener products to gain a competitive advantage. Many are looking for new polymers to use in applications designed to lower greenhouse gas emissions such as electric cars.

Chemistry can improve our knowledge and understanding of the kinetics of depolymerisation (i.e., the “back reaction”) and performance plastics manufacturers and distributors can help sell and promote it. This could result in an efficient method to disassemble polymers, which would allow recycled monomers to compete with virgin feedstock from fossil sources. Chemists are developing monomers and catalysts that promote depolymerisation. Chemists can also develop chemical or spectroscopic labeling for polymer materials. These markers, incorporated into a product, could be used to provide information on a material’s origin, history and content. Markers and labels can support the recycling of a material by providing indicators of the appropriate recycling processes for each material, including those that are just fragments. Therein lies the key. If they can “genetically” label performance plastics, the recycling industry would have an easier time identifying the compound during sorting.

Promising example
Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) is one of the promising product segments when it comes to recycling. Its use in consumer goods and electronics applications is gaining popularity thanks to its excellent rigidity, high strength and dimensional stability. It is a tough material and is resistant to corrosive chemicals, physical impact and heat.

LEGO toys and computer keyboards are common applications for ABS compounds, as well as drain-waste-vent pipe systems, along with golf club heads, musical instruments, luggage, electrical enclosures, automotive trim, protective headgears and numerous domestic appliances and household objects. Plus, recycled ABS is becoming increasingly popular because raw ABS can be expensive to manufacture.

Recycling ABS involves a process called “froth flotation” whereby a water-oil mixture is used with contaminated ABS to separate the ABS from other particles. The ABS is shredded and used with virgin ABS to produce a new product. ABS is 100 percent recyclable. More than that, the process is easy enough that, with the right equipment, it can be done at home. Motivated consumers can separate, grind, extrude and use it in a home 3D printer.

Influencers and incentives
When our industry works together to create awareness, invoke demand and present our case for not only the benefits of performance plastics, but also the recyclability of performance plastics, it’s a win-win situation. When the end-use customer begins favoring more recycled materials, corporations will prioritize sourcing those materials and the apparatus to operate a recycling mill will become more available and profitable.

Plastic waste is a systems problem. We should encourage and support a new infrastructure influenced not only by science, but by economics, policy and consumer behavior. Solutions must address all these factors and not treat each one in isolation. It’s going to take a convergence of leaders, companies and resources who, at all stages, make decisions that will recognize the overall environmental impacts of a positive course of action. Lifecycle analysis is a vital tool to enable this evidence-based decision-making. And our own personal health lifecycle should be our generational priority; a gift of problem-solving and representative of the kind of environment we leave for the next group of hungry business people.

As performance plastics professionals, we have a great story to tell about the recyclability of the materials we manufacture and distribute. Let’s share our environmental success stories so we can be influencers in our industry.