Plastics and sustainable development

monday the 27 of july 2020

Plastics and the economy of plastic materials present substantial challenges when it comes to environmental protection and transition to the green economy. Where some plastic materials that are easy to recycle fit perfectly into sustainable development and circular economy systems, other composite materials are more problematic.

Recycling: the challenge of thermoset composites

The feature of any thermoset composite is to combine at least two components: a matrix (such as a resin) and a reinforcing agent (such as fibres). As the process is irreversible, thermoset plastic components retain their final shape and can never change their state.

Composite materials therefore pose obvious problems for the end-of-life processing of items, their recycling and their upgrading. Whereas thermoplastic materials may be ground down, transformed into granules and reused in plastic injection moulding , thermoset materials which are infusible and insoluble, require the use of other methods.

The processing of end-of-life thermoset plastics often proves to be rather unprofitable economically and environmentally, with incineration and mechanised recycling needed. However, solutions do exist and the contribution of composites to sustainable development remains to be researched from both the innovation angle and from the intrinsic value angle.

Thermoset composites and sustainable development

Innovation has always been at the heart of the development of thermoset plastics. Malleable, strong, light, insulating… Its qualities won over all business sectors years ago and justify its presence amongst general consumer goods as well as in sectors that are both demanding and innovative: aeronautical, surgical, automotive, etc.

Sectors in which the issue of sustainable development is of vital importance! Thermoset composites enable us to control our environmental impact:

  • implementation costs (production costs, carbon footprint, water consumption, etc.) are lower than those of other materials;
  • reduced energy and fuel consumption for means of transport because of their light weight;
  • extended life span of the parts, requiring less maintenance and product treatment than other materials;
  • etc.

The recycling issue, which could have been a major obstacle in the thermoset plastics’ industry, is gradually finding answers. Researchers are exploring new recycling methods (pyrolysis, solvolysis, depolymerisation, etc.) and developing new materials that are easier to recycle (thermoplastic composites, natural polymers, etc.).

Whilst thermoset composites are helping our companies and the economy at present, they will soon be proving their worth in progress and innovation.

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