The chemistry of sustainability

Of the many different types of roles that we recruit for, a regular request is for chemists. They’re an essential part of waste management, filling roles at a range of transfer sites and processing plants. With volumes of waste continuing to increase the demand for this skillset is likely to remain, possibly even increase. Is there an even bigger role for chemists to play? Are there ways for industry to make their contribution more valuable?

It’s one thing to sort and analyse the many different materials that make their way to transfer stations and recycling facilities. Determining what is hazardous or not, and what can and can’t be recycled, has a major impact on recycling rates.

The challenge is that the manufacturing sector has been focussed on differentiation for marketing purposes rather than considering the value in using more uniform materials. In terms of regulation, the priority is often on safety or product integrity. All of this may be changing as EPR gets implemented and companies have to take a more critical look at how they package their products.

Manufacturers may decry the cost of using recycled materials, but they conveniently forget that they’re part of the problem. The recycling process would be a lot less complex and less expensive if there were more mono-materials in circulation. Changing this can’t only start in the recycling phase of a product, it starts with packaging design. In this, chemists have an important contribution to make. 

Packaging innovation and chemistry

In plastic packaging, for example, the density, flexibility, or permeability can be altered by combining different types of polymers. Great for creating unique and effective packaging, but not so great for recycling. The challenge now is for chemists to find alternate solutions that can be as effective, by either using mono or more sustainable materials.

It’s often said that the plastic pollution problem is not with plastic itself as a product, but with how it’s been used. Plastic has the ability to be recycled multiple times and even turned into alternate feedstock. Yet, because it’s been cheap and abundantly available, it’s been used for everything.

Far too much plastic packaging is single use, designed in such a way that it’s difficult to recycle. We’re not just talking about plastic drink bottles. Think of all the mini packets of peanuts, single serving snacks, sweet wrappers, and even cling film that’s often the default for fresh food packaging. Consider the combinations of plastic and foil to ensure product freshness, or plastic and cardboard to make packaging more robust.

Separating out these materials as part of the recycling process is complex and costly. Even as recycling processes get more advanced, as demonstrated by Sherbourne Recycling, this doesn’t take away the need to simplify the materials being used in product design. For some chemists this goes beyond the need to use plastics more effectively. They’re now experimenting with alternatives that are both renewable and biodegradable.

Perhaps one of the reasons for this is that efforts to improve the governance of plastic use are moving at snail’s pace. Case in point are the recent global plastics treaty negotiations, where getting a commitment to reduce the volume of plastic entering the economy was a major aim. While there was much discussion on the topic, no meaningful consensus was achieved. If there’s going to be little or no effort to stop more plastic from entering the economy, then more sustainable alternatives need to be explored.

Sustainable design is about more than just products

We know that chemists have a vital role to play in trying to mitigate the impact of waste on the environment. As industrial processes have become more complex, entrepreneurial thinking is required to adapt the minimisation of wastes.

Even recent heavy rains have environmentalists concerned. Runoff from roads contain microplastics, rubber wear from tires, fuel, oil and other chemical spills, to name a few. With heavy rains where stormwater drains can’t cope, excess water overflows into streams and rivers, carrying with it all the pollution. Once in streams and rivers it impacts ecosystems. In storm water drains and sewers, water can be treated, once it enters river systems this becomes much harder. That’s before all the pollution from the water companies!

The broader impact of plastic and fossil fuel pollution on biodiversity is a good reason for manufacturers to consider more sustainable solutions. Using plant-based materials that can be renewed and which are biodegradable can significantly reduce industrial pollution. Less plastic, less effluent, less hazardous materials, less need to clean up the mess, if you don’t make a mess in the first place.

Consumer awareness is pushing for greater levels of sustainability, and the expertise in chemistry exists to make the transition to more sustainable alternatives. However, for this to work, there needs to be a market for it and an incentive to adopt the alternatives. Are EPR, landfill tax and other regulations enough to push manufacturers towards more sustainable packaging? Or will it take something more? Let's get more #greenskills into the sector, by recruiting chemists from other industrial sectors.