plastic of the future

The Ultimate Guide to Plastics of the Future Part 2 The Big Issue – Carbon!

Carbon is one of the most important elements for life on Earth and it is created through natural processes like volcanic eruptions, forest fires, decomposition of plants, animals, and other natural events. 

Carbon is naturally occurring, but it can also be man-made in the form of Carbon Dioxide (CO2). CO2 is created when carbon reacts with oxygen and it’s the main gas that causes the greenhouse effect. 

Fossil fuels like coal and natural gas release CO2 when they are burned and are made from organic remains that have been turned into coal, oil, or natural gas. When they are burned to produce energy, the CO2 is released. 

Carbon Dioxide can also come from emissions created by driving vehicles or other human activity. However, burning coal releases the most CO2 when it is burned and in turn, it is one of the main contributors to global warming.

Carbon seems to get a bad rap lately, but that’s because there is too much in our atmosphere and not enough in our soil. Most of us are unaware that we can’t simply eradicate carbon from the air, we must capture it and then reintroduce it into the ground – also known as sequestration.

There are a few ways we can neutralize carbon’s effect on our atmosphere:

1) Carbon can be captured from the air to make a fuel called syngas which can be used to generate electricity or heat homes.

2) Changing emitting activities to become carbon neutral – which means that all emissions from a process are offset by removing an equivalent amount of CO2 from the atmosphere.

3) Instituting carbon capturing methods by trapping CO2 before it reaches the atmosphere

We are seeing more and more corporations that are concerned about climate change and see it as their responsibility to make sure that they are doing everything in their power to offset the amount of the dangerous carbon emissions they release into the environment. According to the EPA, the United States alone generates about 5.28 billion metric tonnes of CO2 per year. 

In a world where climate change is a major concern, it’s important for companies to reduce their carbon emissions as much as they can. There are many ways that they can reduce this carbon footprint, from using renewable energy sources to reducing transportation costs to incorporating more natural materials. 

The Natural Carbon Cycle

Nature is imperfect, resilient and astonishing. All around us the delicate balance plays out in an endless symphony of birth, life, death, decay and rebirth. Carbon is a big player in this natural cycle, as most things on Earth are carbon-based.

Carbon is the 4th most abundant element in all the universe just behind Hydrogen, Helium and Oxygen. All living things on Earth are made up of carbon and it is an important building block for all life on Earth. 

It is not only required for all known forms of life, it makes up much of our Earth’s crust. Carbon makes up diamonds, coal, and limestone, which are found deep in Earth’s crust or formed on the seafloor. Carbon is also found closer to the surface and is essential for our soil health. Without it, the natural cycle of photosynthesis cannot occur. Carbonless soil is essentially dust!

Today, nature can absorb and repurpose about 50% of the man-made carbon (in the form of carbon dioxide) that is emitted into the air. However, that means that 50% cannot be sequestered naturally and therein lies the problem!

A carbon footprint is a measure of how much climate change a person, group, activity or country causes. It can be expressed as the total amount (or equivalently, the rate) of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted by a person, organization or country.

Climate Change – A Big Issue Too

Our carbon footprint directly affects climate change. The more carbon dioxide we emit into the air, the more the greenhouse gas effect takes place. These gasses trap heat in our atmosphere and thereby change the natural climate cycles on our planet. 

Climate change is a worldwide issue that needs to be addressed as soon as possible. We can’t just keep doing what we’re doing now, and expect everything to be alright. With the world getting hotter, large corporations continue to emit carbon at an alarming rate, contributing greatly to the problem and no end in sight unless we change our habits. 

The plastics industry typically gets a bad rap as related to the problem of carbon and emissions. That’s because plastic is made of hydrocarbons that are derived from petroleum, coal, natural gas, and oil. The production of plastic creates carbon emissions by releasing methane or nitrous oxide. 

Plastics are not the sole culprits of carbon emissions; however, they are a contributor. 

How Plastics Contribute to Carbon Footprints

We have all heard that term “Carbon Footprint” but what does that actually mean? Your company’s (or any company’s) carbon footprint is equal to the total greenhouse gas emissions from the creation, usage and disposal of a product or service. Methane, nitrous oxide, fluorinated gasses, and carbon dioxide (the most common human emitted gas), all contribute to climate change by trapping heat in the atmosphere, therefore increasing our carbon footprints. 

When we dispose of plastic products, they do not decompose easily because they are not biodegradable. These plastics will be around for centuries until they get buried in landfills or end up in our oceans where they will still be around for centuries to come. This means there is little chance for those plastics and additives to break down and return to the natural ecosystem.

Since plastics are made from oil or natural gas (which are both fossil fuels), when we produce plastics, we release CO2 into the atmosphere as well as other greenhouse gasses like methane and nitrous oxide. There are also additives in plastics like flame retardants and plasticizers which emit harmful chemicals when they break down. So regardless of the lifecycle stage, plastics are potentially emitting harmful chemicals into the environment from the onset of their manufacturing. 

The Carbon Cycle and Where Does it Fit into Plastics Compounding?

Plastics are so common that they account for around 10% of global oil consumption, and a major factor for this is plastics’ production. The carbon cycle includes all the natural processes that transfer carbon from one form to another.

This cycle is a natural system for regulating carbon and it is made up of two parts, the Carbon Cycle and the Oxygen Cycle. The Carbon Cycle consists of photosynthesis, respiration, and decomposition. The Oxygen Cycle includes photosynthesis and decomposition. Together they regulate how carbon moves through our environment.

Plastics production from petrochemical roots is naturally high in carbon and very low in the decomposition rate. Hence, the carbon generated and emitted into our atmosphere from plastics stays around for a long, long time. 

However, there are things we can do to offset this. Plastics can be recycled and made into new plastics. Recycling plastics saves energy as well as conserves resources and in turn, the recycling process also reduces greenhouse gas emissions. The recycling process also has other environmental benefits such as reducing water pollution from landfills, reducing landfill waste producing less air pollution than if we were using raw materials to produce new products.

The problem is that very little of the 300 million tons of plastics produced annually actually gets recycled into new materials. So, the incorporation of natural materials can offset the carbon right from the start. 

Additives can make up significant amounts of the final plastic composition, so think about how beneficial blending in 50%, 30% or even just 20% natural products can be. Also, the recycling process can degrade and/or eliminate the additives and their beneficial properties, so adding natural additives back in following the recycling process can be a win-win on the carbon reduction front!

Future Plastics will Shift the Carbon Cycle

Research is underway to help plastics become “greener”. Pure bioplastics, bio-based additives and other natural materials are moving to the forefront of study to reduce the carbon footprint of our established plastics and the additives that give them the characteristics that make our plastics usable.

Every day, we’re surrounded by traditional plastics – plastic water bottles, plastic bags, plastic wraps. Yet we know surprisingly little about the additives that make plastics so versatile and long-lasting. There are literally hundreds of substances that may be added to plastics: colorants, flame retardants, plasticizers and more. Many of these additives such as talc and calcium carbonate have been in use for decades.

Recently, new bio-based plastic additives have been studied in order to produce more eco-friendly compounds. These additives are created by using plants and other organic materials, instead of petroleum and the results are plastics that are made from renewable resources rather than fossil fuels.

Why do we care about using more renewable sources for plastics? Because of a heightened sense of awareness around reducing emissions and sustainability in general. We see ever rising attention being focused on improving our health (and the health of the planet) by using more renewable sources for plastics.

Natural materials such as hemp, bamboo and cotton offer a sustainable and natural alternative to traditional materials used in plastics, which some claim are harmful to humans and our environment. Industry experts say that these natural materials can be used in almost any industry with no negative effects on the environment. 

Hemp has been found to be a great material for these companies because it is environmentally friendly. It is also more sustainable than most other plant-based materials because it can be grown on marginal land unsuitable for other crops, requires less fertilizer and virtually no pesticides. It also has a much lower water requirement than say bamboo or cotton.

Also, now that Scope 3 emissions are being monitored (however, not yet tightly regulated), the use of bio-based additives for plastics can help a company measurably reduce them.

What are the 3 Types of Carbon Emissions Measured (and is there a 4th?)

Scope 1 emissions are direct emissions from owned or controlled sources.

Scope 2 emissions are indirect emissions from the generation of purchased energy.

Scope 3 emissions are all indirect emissions (not included in scope 2) that occur in the value chain of the reporting company, including both upstream and downstream emissions.

These emissions include those from product use and disposal, as well as those from the production and distribution of products. Here’s where the additives used in plastics can make an effect. By choosing natural additives, the offsetting carbon is reduced. 

Materials like hemp are carbon negative, in fact, for every tonne of hemp grown, it offsets 2.85 tonnes of carbon! That can equate to reducing the carbon footprint of your plastics by 50% or more!

Some references to emissions types point to a fourth class of emissions called Scope 4. These emissions are those that are essentially avoided, and while very hard to quantify, they do represent a reduction through the resulting avoidance. A good example might be videoconferencing from a home office instead of holding live meetings in a central location. In which, the possible emissions of individuals driving to a meeting and sitting in an air-conditioned room with 20 co-workers might be circumvented. 

What Does it Mean to Manage Scope 3 Carbon Emissions?

Scope 3 Emissions are not the same as Scope 1 and 2 emissions. Scope 1 and 2 emissions happen within our organization or supply chain, while scope 3 emissions come from external sources. 

For example, it’s possible for an organization to purchase paper for printing purposes that comes with a high level of scope 3 emissions because it was made in a way that led to significant resource depletion (trees and forested lands).

Managing scope 3 emissions is about finding ways to reduce their impact on the environment through simple steps like buying responsibly sourced materials or switching out energy providers who offer renewable energy only plans. All of these reduce the amount of carbon in the cycle.

Managing your plastics additives is a direct step in managing your Scope 3 emissions. 

The 3 Important Questions to Ask About your Plastic’s Additives

  1. What additives are in the plastics I’m buying?
  2. What percentage of the plastic is mineral fillers?
  3. What percentage of the plastic is natural fillers?

By asking these three simple questions from plastics resin suppliers and compounders, we can gather the data needed to begin a carbon offset program and begin to reduce Scope 3 emissions. 

Our guess is that the answers to #1 and #2 are fairly easy to calculate and readily available. Since using natural materials is a newer practice in plastics additives, many times the answer to #3 will be “zero”! Don’t worry, the fact that that number is low is simply a huge opportunity for you to act upon.

From developing the set of questions for suppliers to understanding the impact that natural additives provide to procuring natural blends, and last but not least, calculating and reporting your carbon reductions from the use of more natural materials.

The road to reducing carbon emissions may seem confusing and challenging, however there are ever increasing resources and  specific organizations dedicated to helping us navigate towards a more sustainable future.