Plastic. The wonder of the modern world and the problem.
Plastic offers huge benefits and a massive impact on our nature, making it a double-sided wonder material. Designing, manufacturing and using plastic products have a considerable downside with the impact on nature. Creating eco-friendly products means understanding the life cycle of plastics and optimising for earth-friendly processes and plastics recycling.
How do we categorise all the different plastic types used by manufacturers, big companies and so forth?
Plastics can be divided into categories depending on their origin and post-usage abilities. Here’s a run-through of the categories and examples of the different types.
Virgin plastic (Petroleum-based plastics) is manufactured from non-renewable raw materials like petroleum or natural gas. This process has significant environmental impacts, contributing to the growing plastic waste problem because the waste products can’t be degraded in nature.
Polyethylene (PE), Polypropylene (PP), Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), Polystyrene (PS), Polycarbonate (PC), Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS), and more.
Post-industrial plastic waste is generated during the manufacturing of products, where excess material, scrap, and defective products are collected to be used in other products. Recycling post-industrial plastic helps reduce waste and conserve resources, eliminating the need for virgin plastic production. However, the origin is still from virgin plastics, with the same downsides.
Post-consumer plastics are plastics that have been used and discarded by consumers. These plastics can be collected through recycling programs and turned into new products. Using post-consumer plastics in manufacturing helps reduce waste, conserve resources, and lower greenhouse gas emissions than producing virgin plastics because there ain’t a need to extract new plastics from the underground.
Bioplastics / Plant-based plastics
Plant-based plastics are produced from renewable resources, such as starch or other biomaterials, require less energy, and generate fewer greenhouse gas emissions than traditional plastics. They can be biodegradable, compostable, or recyclable, but not all are equally sustainable. The use of bioplastics helps reduce dependence on non-renewable resources.
Polylactic Acid (PLA), Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA), starch-based plastics, and cellulose-based plastics.
Biodegradable plastics are beneficial because they can break down into natural components like water, carbon dioxide, and biomass. This helps to reduce plastic waste and litter. However, the effectiveness of biodegradable plastics depends on specific environmental conditions and may take many years to degrade.
Additionally, producing biodegradable plastics can still have ecological impacts, such as using fossil fuels and releasing greenhouse gases, but the impact is lower than using virgin plastics.
Polybutylene succinate (PBS), Polycaprolactone (PCL), and some types of PLA and PHA.
Microplastics are tiny plastic particles that measure less than 5mm in length. Smaller plastic particles are formed from decomposing larger plastic items, like single-use plastics. These particles can be ingested by animals, affecting their health and the entire ecosystem.
Humans are also at risk of being harmed by these tiny plastic particles. As a result, microplastics are a growing concern for the environment and human health.
Microbeads, microfibers, and fragments of larger plastics are broken down into smaller particles.
Engineering plastics are high-performance plastics used in various industries, such as automotive, aerospace, and electronics. They offer superior mechanical, thermal, and electrical properties to traditional plastics. However, they are typically made from non-renewable resources and can have significant environmental impacts during production and disposal.
Polyamide (PA), Acetal (POM), Polycarbonate (PC), Polybutylene Terephthalate (PBT), Polyetheretherketone (PEEK), and more.
How this impacts product development for industrial designers.
In conclusion, plastic is both a wonder and a problem. It has become an essential material in our daily lives, but its impact on the environment cannot be ignored. Understanding the different categories of plastic is crucial in reducing plastic waste, conserving resources, and mitigating its environmental impact.
Recycling and using post-consumer plastics is a step towards environmentally friendly alternatives to single-use petroleum plastics — however, not the final solution. Using plant-based and biodegradable plastics is a significant step towards reducing plastic waste and carbon emissions.
In transitioning to more sustainable products and a greener future. Industrial designers play a crucial role because of our impact on product designs. Our decisions while developing new products significantly affect the reusability, recyclability, degradability and reduction of plastic waste.
Are you conscious of your decision in the product development of new products and services?