Polymers and Other Plastics: Times of Transition

The 2020s have wrought changes in all segments of society, industry, and daily life, and the field of plastics has been as affected as any. In this concluding installment of our series on “Plastics: What Lies Ahead?” we share a roundup of eye-opening directions, departures, and developments in the world of plastics, polymers, resins, and their like.
 
As we have noted in the two previous articles, politics have been paramount in the changes we are seeing. The push for biodegradable plastics, recyclable plastics, and re-usable plastics (as opposed to single-use plastics) has altered the landscape. Today, it is good politics to show your embrace of environmentally friendly plastics, and that reality has fueled a great deal of promotion of those lines. The news is so full of announcements of green alternatives in this field, especially the bio-based alternatives, that it is easy to lose sight of the fact that plastics is primarily a petrochemical endeavor. Some 98 percent of the plastics produced worldwide are made of oil-and-gas byproducts. 
 
And the news that emerges from that pre-ponderance of the market is generally slight, if only because petroleum-based plastics are slogging through their worst days ever, in terms of public opinion. It’s worth saying, though, that even the petrochemical industry is hard at work with developments and innovations to minimize or even, in some cases, eliminate their perceived negatives. 
 
But bio-based alternatives are all the rage today, and that’s what has dominated our series, and that’s what dominates our coverage in this article as well. We only share the “other side” here to keep things in perspective. It’s not just conventional plastics that have suffered in image—it is all oil and gas commodities altogether: fuel, fertilizers, and a whole range of applications. 
 
But public opinion favors renewable, recyclable, biodegradable, and sustainable alternatives, and the 2020s have exploded with them.
 
Corporations seem bent on outstripping one another in new product entries and endeavors. Even such a company as Republic Services Inc., a waste removal specialist and not exactly a name one connects with environmentalism, is getting into the act.
 

Know Your Plastics

Republic created this Know Your Plastics infographic.
To commemorate Earth Day in 2022, Republic Services has shared myth-busting plastics/polymer recycling tips to help consumers be better recyclers. The accompany chart (Know Your Plastics!) was created to help consumers in recycling efforts. As Republic observes, demand is growing for recycled plastic to use in consumer packaging, so it’s especially important that plastic bottles, jugs, and containers make their way into the recycling bin.
 
Today in the United States, only about 30 percent of single-use plastic bottles and jugs are recycled. While recycling rates are low, demand is high for this recycled plastic. Many consumer brands have pledged to use more recycled content in their packaging, and some states are even requiring it.
Republic shared its top 5 plastics recycling myths, which we repeat here:
 
Myth: Plastic doesn’t really get recycled. Fact: Plastic bottles, jugs, containers and tubs are widely accepted for recycling in communities across the country, and there is strong demand for these materials.
 
Myth: Anything plastic can go in your recycling bin. Fact: Know what to throw. Generally, plastic bottles with necks or handles, or plastic containers and tubs are recyclable in your curbside container.
 
Myth: Plastic grocery bags can be recycled curbside. Fact: Plastic bags require special handling to be recycled and should not go in your curbside container. Return them to collection bins at the grocery or big-box store.
 
Myth: You should bag your recyclables. Fact: Recyclables should never be bagged. Place them loose in your recycling bin. Plastic bags can wrap around and jam equipment at recycling facilities, causing delays or damage.
 
Myth: Anything with a recycling symbol should go in your recycling bin. Fact: The “chasing arrows” symbol generally identifies the type of plastic used in a container or indicates that an item contains recycled content, but it does not mean that an item is recyclable.
 

It’s Called a Polymer Center

Republic Services is advancing plastics recycling and circularity through development of the nation’s first integrated plastics recycling facility. Republic’s first Polymer Center will process plastics from recycling facilities across the West and produce high-quality recycled plastic for use in consumer packaging. The center will open in 2023 in Las Vegas, with plans for two to three additional sites for national coverage to follow. For more information, visit RepublicServices.com/PolymerCenter.
 
For more recycling tips, visit RecyclingSimplified.com.
 

Polymers and Other Plastics Improve Electric Vehicles

Electric vehicles (EVs) are gaining market share, and plastics are part of the reason why.
 
Rapid adoption of electric vehicles across the globe, increasing use of polymers in interiors of EVs, and increasing focus on manufacturing lightweight electric vehicles are some factors expected to drive market growth.
 
According to the latest report by Reports and Data, the global electric vehicle (car) polymers market size was $6.9 billion in 2020 and is expected to reach $418 billion in 2028. That would mean that the niche registers a Cumulative Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 67 percent during the forecast period, 2021-2028. 
 
The technology of electric vehicles is dependent on high efficiency and good strength-to-weight ratio, which has increased use of lightweight materials. Polymers provide long-term performance and efficiency gains and have proven to improve fuel efficiency by 5 percent. Rapid advancement in polymer science have further broadened their application scope in automotive applications. Polymers have been widely used in sensor shields, brackets, insulation, EV charging stations, and in battery separators and coatings. Increasing use of polymers to reduce noise, vibration, and harshness level and to boost efficiency and performance of electric vehicles are some key factors expected to drive market revenue growth over the forecast period. 
 

Plastics Recycling Has High Upside

Plastics recycling, as an industry, holds potential of some $50 billion in revenues, if the business sector embraces the niche in coming years. According to analysis by Markets & Markets, chemical companies are taking initiatives across the value chain to improve quality of recycled plastics as well as addressing sorting challenge. And governments are fast leaning towards environmental sustainability. 
 
Recycling rates are low in different economies. Currently it ranges between 20-30 percent globally, although it is higher in developed economies. Markets & Markets’ research and analysis focused on high growth and niche markets, which are expected to supply some 80 percent of the revenues of companies in the plastic recycling ecosystem over the next 5-10 years.
 

Polymer Breakthrough

An organization known as Green Science Alliance has been trying to replace petrochemical derived products with nature biomass derived chemical products. Most recently, Dr. Ryohei Mori of Green Science has developed a biodegradable coating material based on PLA (Poly Lactic Acid), making the results 100 percent natural biomass.
 
A polymer first: a bio-degradable coating material made from PLA.
PLA is classified as a thermoplastic resin and these polymers are normally sourced for production of biodegradable plastic.
 
The special grade of PLA used in this coating material (see photo) is environmentally friendly and nature derived. Other additives in this product are also nature derived materials. Also this PLA can be coated or painted. Green Science Alliance is also planning to apply color to make PLA based ink and paint. 
 

Polymers: PLA Usage to Nearly Double in Five Years

Indeed, PLA is going places. According to a new market research report by Markets & Markets, the trade in PLA is projected to grow from a volume of $1 billion (as of 2021) to $1.9 billion by the year 2026. 
 
PLA is a linear, aliphatic polyester synthesized from lactic acid monomers. It is biodegradable and has characteristics similar to polypropylene (PP), polyethylene (PE), or polystyrene (PS). It is compostable and the most used type of biodegradable plastic derived from renewable resources—including corn starch, tapioca roots, chips, starch, or sugarcane. 
 
Packaging is the largest end-use industry for PLA, with a high CAGR of 13 percent during the forecast period. The need for sustainable solutions has encompassed several industry verticals, including food and beverages and e-commerce.
 

Getting in Step with “the Robbie”

Another polymer grabs another headline.
 
In March, the company known as Braskem announced its involvement in a new shoe line—one involving a polyolefin produced by this company that leads the industry in that sector (polyolefin, not shoes). Teaming with the Native Shoes company, the group launched the all-new Robbie footwear, created with Braskem’s renewable and carbon negative “I’m Green (TM)” bio-based EVA polymer.
The Robbie shoe line by Native Shoes includes components made from sugar cane.
Braskem’s Renato Yoshino remarked that “Native Shoes is helping lead the movement to meet the growing consumer demand for more environmentally conscious footwear and taking fashion to the next level of sustainability. Braskem is delighted to work with like-minded partners around new sustainably focused products.” Braskem’s I’m greenTM bio-based EVA is produced from sugarcane. For more information on The Robbie visit Native Shoe online at www.nativeshoes.com/robbie-collection.
 
It seems the heavier the world gets, the more it needs lightness. That’s why we exist. Founded in 2009, Native Shoes fuses innovation, creativity, and curiosity to create a lighter, happier world for us all. From innovating bio-based materials and animal-free design to recycling well-loved shoes via the Native Shoes Remix™ Project, our purpose is to make it easy for all to Live Lightly, every step of the way. 
 

Plastics: Change is the Constant

To live lightly—that motto could well sum up what so many in the plastics world are striving to do. We’ve covered a lot of innovative ground in this series, and if we were to sum up, the conclusion might be that the world of plastics, polymers, resins, and other materials are in the midst of the greatest epoch of change this industry has ever known. The word “plastic” itself means moldable, changeable, shapeable. Never have these materials been put through so much scrutiny, study, and scientific rigor. It’s a special time to be a part of this world, and someday we may all look back on the 2020s as the most eventful years of our trade. 
 
Thank you for following along in this series, and thank you for being involved an industry we all know and value.
 
In case you missed them, make sure to read parts 1 & 2 of this series:
  Part 1:
The Plastics Transformation
  Part 2:
Shifting Winds: Plastics Face Big Changes

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