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Essay: Waste Reduction and Improved Resource Efficiency in the Use of Plastics

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  • Subject area(s): Engineering essays
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  • Published: October 19, 2015*
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  • Waste Reduction and Improved Resource Efficiency in the Use of Plastics
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Summary: Plastic waste and its impacts
The use of plastic is one the world has come to really rely on. It is perhaps the most used solid commodity in the world as its use and application cuts across all industries and sectors. Because of its adaptability, flexibility and low cost, there is a huge demand for its use in the manufacture of everyday commodities such as mobile phones, furniture, cars, packaging etc. Perhaps this is why from the extraction of raw materials used in its production to the disposal of finished goods that incorporates its use, it generates a massive amount of waste. (
Concerns about this massive amount of waste generated from the use of plastics is growing especially with regards to its effect on the earth ecosystem. The most reported effects are of the endangerment of marine life, the growing mountains of plastic trash and pollution as a result of incineration at disposal.
‘Wastes are materials that are not prime products (that is products produced for the market) for which the generator has no further use in terms of his/her own purposes of production, transformation or consumption, and of which he/she wants to dispose. Wastes may be generated during the extraction of raw materials, the processing of raw materials into intermediate and final products, the consumption of final products, and other human activities. Residuals recycled or reused at the place of generation are excluded’. (The United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD))
From this definition, waste can be classified as the following:
‘ Left over material from a manufacturing process that is no longer wanted, of use or has no marketable value.
‘ Material discharged to, deposited in, or emitted to an environment in such amount or manner that causes a harmful change.
‘ Over consumption of resources from non-value adding activities.
Waste minimization
The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) uses the following definition: Waste minimization refers to strategies that are aiming to prevent waste through upstream interventions. On the production side, these strategies are focusing on optimizing resource and energy use and lowering toxicity levels during manufacture. Strategies that are considered to minimize waste and thus improve resource efficiency in or even before the manufacturing process are, for example, product design, cleaner production, reuse of scrap material, improved quality control, waste exchanges, etc. On the consumption side, waste minimization strategies aim to strengthen awareness and prompt environmentally conscious consumption patterns and consumer responsibility to reduce the overall levels of waste generation
The definition for waste minimization is different across organizations but the one consistency is that it is more important not to create it in the first place than to manage it after they have been created.
Plastic Waste Cycle and depletion of crude oil
To begin with, in considering the waste cycle of plastic, using its life cycle approach would be appropriate. For example in the manufacture of a toy truck, the life/waste cycle would consider the following processes: Extraction, production and transportation of raw materials, Processing of raw materials, Manufacture or service provision, assembly and packaging of products, Distribution (transport, storage and handling), Consumer use and End of life treatment and disposal of a product.
This gives an overview of the whole process and is a good starting point in assessing the amount of waste generated per unit of product. Each stage of the life cycle generates its own waste.
Sustainable design
Waste reduction starts with the design process (Lords report). The potential for waste related to the product can be predetermined at the design stage and solutions to mitigate them incorporated. To make more sustainable plastic goods, the following are design considerations:
Design for embedded carbon
Understanding the life cycle of a product can help in the design for embedded carbon by analyzing the various stages and determining which stages would greatly impact in the release of GHG emissions. Also the addition of recycled material in the production of a new one can decrease the products embedded carbon.
Design for disassembly
Designing for disassembly would allow products to be easily dismantled and separated for the recovery of still useful parts without employing a lot of effort.
Most plastics can be recycled but unlike aluminum, its quality might not remain the same and cannot be recycled over and over again. Recycling over and over might affect the integrity of the product but the use of a percentage of recycled material is encouraged and in some cases, plastics can be 100% recyclable. In order to make recycling easy, it is encouraged to use fewer kinds of plastic materials for the different parts of a product and the parts should be labelled correctly to enable the sorting process at the end of life.
Recycled content
Using recycled content in production may require a process of its own, hence designing for recycled content is essential. A frequently used example is the use of 100% recycled PET in the Innocent drinks bottle. Using high recycled content can save costs.
Bio-degradability or Compostability
Bio degradable plastics is the buzz of the plastic industry as drastically aids in reducing the amount of waste generated from the use of plastics at the end of life. In designing bio-degradable plastics, manufacturers need to ensure the product is disposed of in the right conditions and that consumers have the ability to home compost. This is important as the EU Landfill Directive has a set a limited target as to the amount of biodegradable waste going to landfill due to the high levels of methane and CO2 produced as a result.
Product light-weighting
Initiated by the Courtauld commitment (Lords), product light weighting has sought and made progress in reducing the volume of packaging per unit product thus reducing the amount of plastic packaging disposed by consumers.
Transport efficiency
Transportation of raw materials, parts and finished goods is another aspect that has a huge impact in the use of energy from non-renewable sources, as well as in the release of gases. In order to minimize the effects of transportation, designers should consider the following:
Designing packaging to allow for more products to be transported at once
Designing for less materials to be used in packaging
Designing for an efficient delivery system that reduces the amount of time vehicles spend on the road.
Designing for a reduction in the transporting of partly finished goods or work in progress.
Design for longevity and durability
Planned obsolescence is a term used when companies deliberately design their products so that they become obsolete after a certain time frame ensuring more purchase from consumer over time. However, even though plastics have a long life span, products comprised of plastics may have a shorter life span, for example, the plastic electric kettle. Instead of disposing of it when the electric parts stop working, a consumer can have it changed instead, retaining the same old plastic covering. In order to reduce waste, more products need to be built to last longer and to better withstand wear from everyday use. This can be achieved with improvements in design.
Design for energy efficiency
Cradle to cradle design
Sustainable Plastics: Bio-plastics
Petroleum-based plastics are currently the most used type of plastics employed across industries but they are not very sustainable in the following ways:
‘ They are made from petroleum. Petroleum is a fast depleting natural resource and is non-renewable
‘ Oil is rich in carbon, hence plastics have a massive amount of embedded carbon compounds.
‘ High levels of energy is required in plastic production processes
‘ More expensive to procure.
‘ They are mostly non-degradable (the ones that are have very low degradable levels and take a long time to disintegrate)
‘ As they do not degrade, disposal has become a growing concern, causing various kinds of environmental damage. For example, The UN Environment Programme reported that annually, debris from plastic waste cause the deaths of over a million marine birds and animals.
‘ Not all oil based plastics are recyclable.
Alternatively, a growing trend in the use of plastics, is the use of bio plastics. Bio plastics are mostly used in the packaging of products and as parts in cars.
They are made through the use of organic resources such as soy protein, corn starch, sugar cane etc. These are highly renewable and readily available sources of raw materials unlike petroleum-based plastics. Although most bio-based polymers meet the standards for biodegradability and compostability, some bio-based plastics such as polyethylene and polyester terephthalate are non-biodegradable.
The reason for the shift in consideration for bio based polymers include:
To optimize the use of resources in the manufacturing process of plastic goods, Lean Manufacturing techniques are employed.
Lean manufacturing is a management strategy employs a set of tools and techniques in manufacturing to highlight and minimize activities that do not create value to the finished product, thereby reducing waste, preserving or enhancing quality, with little cost and greater efficiency. (US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA))
Employing the use of lean manufacturing will minimize waste from the following processes:
‘ Transportation (excess and inefficient transportation of raw materials, parts and finished goods, within and outside company premises).
‘ over processing (adding more value to the product than the customer is willing to pay for)
‘ Defects (finished products that do not meet standards for sale)
‘ Waiting (unnecessary waiting time that can occur as a result of several factors for example, breaks between processes)
‘ Overproduction (producing without actual customer demand)
‘ Motion ( movement of workforce that may take too much time)
‘ Inventory (raw materials, work in progress and finished goods that are held on the premises)
Although this sort of waste may not be directly related to any environmental impact, it does indirectly contribute. For instance, more work in progress across the production line means that a company has to create a large space to store these items. Acquiring this extra space would cost money as it would need to have heating and lighting, meaning more energy spent in production that could have been avoided. (Aziken)
Plastic footprint management
In managing plastic, companies need to begin take into account the amount of plastics used in upstream and downstream processes by measuring, and reporting on it.
Measuring, Reporting and Monitoring
A huge step in sustainable plastic practices, is for companies to measure and then incorporate information on their level of plastic consumption and its environmental effects into yearly and CSR reports.
Measurement is the first step towards understanding a company’s use of plastic. With this information companies can identify the economic, environmental and social impacts of plastic consumption and make decisions on how to improve. Many of the companies in this research make use of lifecycle analysis, with some disclosing the results. For example, Apple and Interface make formal environmental product declarations linked to their main product categories, with the exact material composition and associated impact.34,
Companies can refer to the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) to obtain reporting standards as well as release their own reports in accordance of GRI-4 guidelines set for indicators EN1, EN2 and EN28. These indicators are set so manufacturers can report on how much recycled content is used in plastic processes, how much of their products have been reclaimed including packaging and the amount of resources or materials used in the production and packaging of products.
For carbon footprint and impact of plastic consumption, companies may refer to the CDP for reporting and release of reports.
Additional reporting opportunities include the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) and the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC).69,
Another way a company can achieve full disclosure specifically in the area of plastic consumption, is through The Plastic Disclosure Project. They provide companies with a standard framework for reporting the use of plastics from manufacture to its end of life. This provides companies with data and information to manage their processes better especially in supply chain management and product design strategies. Stakeholders often use this platform to seek investment opportunities.
Regulation and reputation are currently the main drivers of disclosure.
There are tools as well as research articles from organizations available to aid companies in monitoring their supply chain and to ensure transparency in business operations. They are:
Material IQ: covers wide ranging sustainability data for materials including the use of chemical additives.
Plastic Scorecard: covers sustainability data for preferable types of plastic.
PlasticsEurope: Research and published eco profiles for various kinds of plastics.
Conclusion End of life management: disposal

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