The Promise of plastics: How good could it get?
This is the second part in a 4 part series looking at Plastics from the perspective of an industry insider. We explore just how good it could get from a utopian perspective and then check in with reality to see where we are in relation to it. This series of though pieces aim to challenge the consensus story told about the group of materials that plastics is and to introduce some complexity into the topic.
Utopia — or is it?
Imagine if we had materials that could be tailor made, every aspect of their properties optimized for a specific application. Scientists could conjure materials with desired properties out of thin air, similar to putting Lego pieces together.
These materials would have next to no environmental footprint. The resources to produce these materials would not require large areas of land to grow or lots of water, nutrients or time to come to be. They would be designed in a lab, produced in a reactor and then manufactured into anything and everything imaginable.
All the scientists would need are a few stray carbon and hydrogen atoms as building blocks of these materials. They could be sourced from bio-based feedstock, waste streams, space debris or they could be grown. Imagine that we could choose to make these materials so stable that they would last for 1000 years, or to just dissolve in a compost within a week.
Envision an industry that has tight enough control on their manufacturing process that they produce thousands of tons of these materials while only losing a miniscule fraction, single kgs of it per year. Imagine an industry that molds these materials into the most flagrant, fantastic creations while ensuring that every single scrap, shard of material and extra product is collected from the ground up, and directed into new products in their factories. Picture a process that is immensely energy efficient since the material is molded at much lower temperatures than say steel or aluminum. Allow yourself to conceptualize materials that are more durable, lower weight, lower cost, and without restriction on use or geopolitical implications.
Finally, imagine that at the end of life of these materials, the supply chain is closed. Block chain technology enables exact traceability and information on the contents of parts. The materials are collected, sorted, mechanically recycled up 6 or 7 times in suitable applications until they have degraded to a point where the industry puts them back into chemical recycling plants. Here, the materials are disintegrated into molecules and re-purposed into virgin grade materials again for another cycle of use.
Imagine that the only new input of resources needed from year to year was to account for the increased consumption and from whatever was lost or consumed.
Does this sound good? This could be the promise of plastics — if we do it right.
Reality check: The industry is doing better then one would think…
So, where are we in relation to this utopia? Well, we have a lot of the technology and chemistry available. Companies are investing in exchanging the petrochemical base of…