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Sustainability in Plastics—Embracing New Approaches

By: Chris Pandis
Posted: August 31, 2011

Over the past decade, green choices such as sustainable living, goods made from renewable and recyclable materials, and product stewardship have moved from the realm of study and debate to become almost universally accepted. The concept of global climate change is accepted as fact, and the remaining doubters are mostly regarded as part of a radical fringe. Earth centric thinking is becoming a critical part of everyday life.

It is no wonder, then, that makers of high-volume consumer goods, including beauty and personal care products, have sharpened their focus on sustainability and shifted from making rather ad hoc efforts to appear green to developing clear environmental policies with real and verifiable objectives. Procter & Gamble, for instance, is one brand owner that has publicly committed to long-term goals of reducing energy consumption, converting entirely to renewable energy sources, using 100% renewable or recycled materials, and eliminating disposal of consumer and manufacturing waste in landfills. Unilever reports that, by 2020, it will reduce the weight of packaging by one third, cut landfilled waste in half, and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions associated with their products by 50%.

Early efforts to produce green products and packaging were driven mainly by marketers who saw the advantage in connecting with consumers concerned about the environment. In many cases, however, they fought an uphill battle against purchasing people who saw higher costs compared to more conventional materials, production staff who found the alternative materials to be difficult to process, and designers who found limited choices in color and other appearance elements. A compromise had to be reached between sustainable objectives and the reality of economics, production and aesthetics.

Not so today. While the efforts of some brand companies may have started as a response to consumers concerned about the environment—and while they may still be presented under the banner of corporate responsibility—these changes are now being driven as much by economics as by ecology. Cutting material and energy use is not just environmentally responsible, it is also fiscally rewarding.

Putting Plastics on a Diet

As noted, a key sustainability objective for many companies involves lightweighting of packaging. Not only does a lighter package require less material, but it costs less to manufacture and transport. You only need to look at the ubiquitous PET polyester water bottle to see the effect “thin-walling” has had in recent years. In beauty products, however, a thin, flimsy package will inevitably reduce the perceived value of the product. That’s why there is such keen interest in the newest chemical foaming agents (CFAs) available for use in injection molded, thermoformed and blow molded plastics components. Finer and more durable foam-cell structures now make it possible to achieve resin-use reductions of up to 25% without a significant loss in appearance or mechanical properties.