Plastic is the single most commonly used material in modern manufacturing. It has been like that for the last half-century, and it is only getting worse and worse as the years go by. Most products are made of plastic, and most of that plastic lies around in landfills after it has been used. And, because plastic does not biodegrade, it will continue to lie around there for centuries to come, even if we stop making more. It is vitally important that plastic manufacturing moves towards more recyclable, sustainable options, but that might not even be enough here.
Recycling may have developed significantly over the years, but it still is not enough. A very small percentage of plastic is recycled – estimates generally place that at around 10%. That means 90% of the plastic made every year is unrecycled and left to choke up the planet.
But recycling plastic products is not the full answer to the problem. The industry needs to move towards more sustainable materials instead of regular plastics, and environmentally sustainable thermoplastic might be a key part of that progress.
What are Thermoplastics?
There are many different types of thermoplastics on the market at the moment, but they all feature some important properties in common. Acrylic, polyester, polypropylene, polystyrene, nylon, and Teflon are common thermoplastics. These materials are used in various items, including garments, nonstick cookware, carpets, and laboratory equipment.
All thermoplastics are made out of polymer resin materials that soften when heated up and harden again when cooled. But how does that work? And why does that matter? Well, normally, when you melt plastic, it will not quite set the same again when it cools down. It will be weaker and damaged, which makes it inappropriate for some uses.
Thermoplastics are much stronger and much more able to recover from high temperatures or corrosive environments. Thermoplastics are also important because of their recyclability. Let’s look into that a bit more below.
Are Thermoplastics Recyclable?
The big, important difference between thermoplastics and traditional plastics is that thermoplastics are much, much easier to recycle. Recycled thermoplastic materials are used in a huge range of products in every sector, from industrial to consumer-facing. From semiconductors to aviation projects, businesses across the globe are using recyclable thermoplastics in their products.
However, thermoplastics are often thrown out like regular plastics rather than being recycled. This is a problem because thermoplastics can be recycled easily. While recycling a regular plastic will make it weaker and less useful, thermoplastics’ unique properties enable them to be recycled without losing any strength, durability, or flexibility in the process.
The important property here is that thermoplastics are strong, durable materials that have weak bonds between the individual molecules. That means that the molecules themselves can’t easily change, so the plastic can’t be weakened, while the loose bonds between them make them easy to melt and reshape without damaging the material itself.
Thermoplastics can be melted and remolded again and again and again without any major problems arising. This makes environmentally sustainable thermoplastic an obvious choice for a material to use more of going forward. It might not be perfect, but thermoplastic is the plastic of the future!
What Can Recycled Thermoplastics Be Used For?
Thermoplastics can be used for pretty much any situation in which a regular plastic might otherwise be used. Mechanical components, machining, all sorts of things. The important thing here is that thermoplastics can be Reused, not just used. If you can use a new plastic for something, you can use a recycled thermoplastic for it, reducing the amount of material wasted in every step of the manufacturing process.
Moving the global economy towards thermoplastics rather than regular plastics may seem like a minor change, but it is one that moves us towards an economy built on cycles of reuse rather than on the constant consumption of more and more materials. It might not seem like much, but it is a step in the right direction in a time when we desperately need to take as many steps as possible in that direction.
Are Thermoplastics More Environmentally Friendly than Other Plastics?
Yes, absolutely, and it is not all about recycling. The production of thermoplastics is less environmentally damaging than that of regular plastics. It is still not great, but it is a much more energy-efficient option for producing plastic objects and materials. This is because the production cycles are much shorter, so the amount of energy used up in that time period is far lower.
There is also much less waste material produced during thermoplastic production cycles: many other plastics have an imperfect conversion rate, with scraps escaping and being left behind in the production machinery. Thermoplastics, however, are much less likely to leave scraps or scrapings behind in the machinery. This helps with the efficiency of the production process on every level.
Another easily overlooked part of the environmental side of thermoplastic production is storage temperature. The materials used in regular plastic production often require refrigeration or even freezing, requiring large cooling setups for both storage and transport. Thermoplastics and their component materials can be stored and transported at ambient temperatures, which removes the need for expensive, energy-hungry refrigeration systems throughout the process.
What Makes Thermoplastics So Eco Friendly?
The big reason that thermoplastics are so much more eco-friendly than standard plastics is the way that they can be reformed and reused indefinitely. There is no endpoint in a thermoplastic product’s life: it can easily be recycled into fresh materials without any loss of strength or durability.
Thermoplastics are also great for avoiding the creation of microplastics, tiny fragments of plastic material that pollute natural environments. This is because those tiny fragments can easily be melted out of the production machinery and reused for further thermoplastic production.
Thermoplastics are a great eco-friendly alternative to regular plastics, but they still need to be recycled: all of this is largely useless if you are just throwing out your thermoplastic waste rather than carefully and responsibly recycling it. Moving towards thermoplastic use is a fantastic step in the right direction, but it is only a single step, and there are so many more steps we need to be taking as a society.
What are the Sustainability Benefits of Thermoplastics?
Thermoplastics are great for sustainability, but what does that actually mean? Well, sustainability is a major concern at the moment and is only likely to be more important as time goes on. The idea behind sustainability and sustainable materials and economies is that we should be aiming for a society in which everything operates in balanced cycles. Rather than using up our planet’s raw materials and creating waste, we should be feeding that waste back into the system and using it for raw materials, creating a perfect closed loop.
That applies to society, too: rather than the workforce creating value for employers, that value needs to be reinvested and used to benefit the workers, in a constant loop of benefit for all. Thermoplastics are a material rather than a societal feature, but the more parts of our economy and life we can push towards sustainability, the better!
Are Thermoplastics the Perfect Answer?
Unfortunately, thermoplastics alone cannot make all the difference we need. Without financial incentives and government regulation to encourage recycling, society will be unable to move towards sustainability and environmental support.
In addition to this, some thermoplastics are made with additives, which reduces their recyclability and sustainability. That is a problem that needs to be addressed at the manufacturer level, with a focus on pushing thermoplastic manufacturers to the use of sustainable materials by any means necessary, either incentives or penalties.
However, thermoplastics are significantly better than conventional plastics, and that is not something to be overlooked. Promoting small changes can help us to get closer to sustainability, even if each change is a very small one. If we wait for the perfect answer, we will never get anywhere at all. Small steps are all we have, and thermoplastic use is a great example of a small step that can help us to get a little closer to where we need to be.
Moving away from plastic completely is very unlikely to happen any time soon, so replacing those plastics with more sustainable, more recyclable options is the best option we have right now. The more we replace traditional plastic materials with thermoplastics, the better!
Thermoplastics are one of the most important materials out there at the moment, offering all of the benefits of conventional plastic materials and more, with notably fewer drawbacks and much, much less wastage. Knowing about the sustainability and relative eco-friendliness of these materials is valuable, as it helps to encourage greater uptake and more replacement of conventional plastics with environmentally sustainable thermoplastic materials.
Progress is made of small steps, and environmentally sustainable thermoplastic is just one of those many, many small steps. Sustainability is a complex, long-term goal, and every small step we take towards that goal is a step in the right direction.