Plastic generation to be replaced by sustainable products

Plastic generation to be replaced by sustainable products

Textile relevant products are at the forefront of being replaced by more and more sustainable processes and products. The same is true for textile machinery. however the approach is more difficult to obtain a uniform result. We offer you another insight on the difficulties to be met when plastic materials, deriving from crude oil have to be replaced by other materials offering the same qualities as the former plastics applied

One of these days, there will be a shortage or at least a diminishing volume of crude oil available that can be transformed into plastic or be used as fuel and the battle for this commodity is full under way.

Let’s take an example, the toy manufacturers presented at the last major technical toy exhibition at Nürnberg (D) for the first time toys made of more sustainable materials naturally growing again in nature. There are two groups of such materials according to the specialized German FNR Fachagentur Nachwachsende Rohstoffe (Agency for re-growing raw materials): Firsts of all there are bio-plastics on the basis of Polymilk Acids (PLA) or cellulose acetate and in turn they are consisting of stark from maize or grains, the later are based on wood waste. The only difference, the final product has other characteristics then comparable products made of plastic, for instance the sustainable products are less heat resisting. The second group represents products deriving of polyethylene with similar characteristics as the ones made of plastic.

Both groups need also a new manufacturing process. The production of Frisbee discs – made by the specialized German Eurodisc – is a good example. For this product, made of re-grown material, a three and a half year development process was necessary, and the major difficulty to overcome was to obtain the right mixuture for the new material. The first prototypes forthcoming were too heavy, 280 grams instead of the commonly 175 grams a fact which hindered that the new disks would fly. Such discs need to be flexible on top of other qualities needed and this presents extraordinary difficulties to achieve in comparison to the ones manufactured out of plastic materials. Once blisters occurred and another time the outside layer was loosened and stuck in the machine during the manufacturing process. Before the first presentation of the finished product at the Nürnberg exhibition, a new weekly definition of the solution had to be initiated to reach the desired end product.

German Tecnaro, located near Stuttgart was the supplier of the new material and had started with plastics deriving from wood. For the Frisbee discs, a combination of bio-polyethylene on the base of sugar and a specific bio-polyethylene was applied. The company disposes of around 1000 different solutions. The company has another customer (German Schleicher Toys) who wanted to produce sustainable plastic figures for children’s use in their room and the customer experimented for quite some time with materials on a PLA basis. Both customers need only one material or better one mixture of materials.

Other toys are made of different materials and parts, for instance play-mobile figures have hands made of poly-acetate to snap up and feather back when the works are gripping. The hair is made of polypropylene and for the internal parts high-tech polymer is applied, and the rest is made of acryl-nitrile-butadiene-styrol (ABS). Since fall of 2011, Schleicher has been on the outlook for the right material to be used and the finding was that PLA based material was the best for fulfilling the mechanical duties. Also a substitution of ABS was found. However the company voiced skepticism in view to the application of new polymer based materials for safety reasons, and therefore the replacement of the wing of the dragon is still waiting for an adequate sustainable solution.

Another problem is water, because the new materials are more susceptible to changing weather conditions than crude oil based plastics. Plastic toy cars or shovels are not supposed to change when those are subjected to rain. However the new materials contain fats and minerals and if these are in contact with water they tend to be smooth and soapy and the Frisbee disc slips out of the hand. Therefore another play-mobile producer decided already 15 years ago not to make use of a mixture of wood and plastic. The company experimented with a mixture of up to 60 % wooden fibres in combination with polypropylene and/or polyethylene-terephthalate (PET). The resulting optic was a nice wooden structure but the more wooden content, the more brittle the material became and the structure was not fully tight. If such materials were exposed to water then the surface became spongy, goffering a real disgusting look. Also, some toys have to be painted and this is another challenge for new materials due to the missing adhesion of paint on such surfaces. The painting process has to be done manually. Further, the fastness of the paint creates problems, only the white and black colours are offering true fastness so far, but the needed colours are manifold. The colour red is based upon iron ore and only blue shades can be taken from natural sources.

The European use of Plastic 2010
Total in Mega t 46.4
Segment / Share in %
Packaging 39.0
Construction 20.6
Automotive 7.5
Electrical and electronic industries 5.6
Others (e.g. Toys, Sport, Medicine, Agriculture and Household 27.3
Source: Plastics Europe

In addition to all of these challenges, there is not enough volume of bio-plastics available. Play-mobile only needs 25000 t annually and thereof are 18000 t ABS and there is no manufacturer yet who can provide such volumes. Another challenge is that the needs for maize and grains compete directly with nutrition purposes and there are globally still people starving. According to estimates by FNR, four percent of the worldwide wood production would be sufficient to globally satisfy the demand for sustainable plastic. There are also kinds of re-grown raw materials existing that do not compete with nutrition or feedstuff, among are wood or waste of the production of stark and vegetable oil.

It is also clear that these new sustainable materials have a higher price tag (factor two) than the ones based on crude oil and this does not make them competitive. An increasing demand for such toys and an increasing price for crude oil would lead to a relaxation and at the same the higher price for crude oil would bring a balancing of costs. However the search for new sustainable materials in the toy sector – and others – is not an ecological game, but rather an economic necessity.

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