Industrial sector: Plastic
Industry Analysis


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In this report I will be investigating the plastic industry. This
analysis will be done using life cycle analysis: cradle to grave. This report
will outline a set of DESIGN
recommendations for improving the efficiency with which plastic resources
are used throughout its life cycle.

Plastics is a broad term referring to a wide variety of products
across a range of different industries worldwide. Plastics have a chemical properties
such as conduction, Heat malleability and resistant to wreathing which allow
for a wide range of applications across a spectrum of industries worldwide. Polyethylene
(PE) commonly known as petroleum plastic or polymers is the material that is
used throughout the plastic industry globally

The chemical content of polymers is what gives it its unique usage
ability throughout industry. Polymers tend to be made mostly of carbon with
each polymer having a repetitive sequence of molecules which are known as
monomers (NDT, 2013). This unique chemical composition gives plastic the
ability to withhold large volumes whilst at the same time being very durable
and flexible.

Soon after Bakelite a number of other Synthetic polymers were
created with the ones largley being used in the modern economy being:
Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET), High Density Polyethylene (HDPE), Low Density
Polyethylene (LDPE), Polypropylene
(PP) and Polystyrene (PS) (Mercola,
2013). There are numerous applications when it comes to this raw
material thus allowing plastics to be used across a variety of Sectors these
include: Packaging, construction, materials, automotive, electronics,
agriculture and the medical industry (Plastics Europe, 2016). 

The main drawback to do with plastics and the plastic industry
also one of plastics greatest strengths: its ability to be very durable.
Plastics can have a lifespan for up to a 500 years. (Goecopure, 2017) and are not degradable by
microorganisms and oxygen, therefore their structure remains intact for
extended periods of time. Even when plastic does start to degrade it can
release harmful toxins such as Dioxins, Mercury and Furans (Verma et al, 2016) which
cause environmental pollution and thus contributing to climate change as well
as harming the local environments ecosystem.

Plastics have now become a symbol of unsustainability in the
modern age as it continues to cause destruction at each point in its life
cycle.  Plastics are now ever
increasingly having an effect on the earth and its oceans with their production
and usage increasing very rapidly in the past 60 years figure one shows the
rapid expansion of plastics from 50MT of plastic produced to 322MT in 2015
(Statista, 2015).

There is currently a very large problem when it comes to plastic
disposal as there are currently only two methods that are primarily used to
officially dispose of them. The first of these methods is incineration however this
releases copious amounts of harmful toxins into the air. The other method used
globally is placing the plastic into a landfill. A final method which is used
unofficially is the dumping of plastics into the ocean it is estimated that
there is 5 trillion pieces of plastic debris within our ocean (Parker, 2015). From the
5 trillion pieces of debris the majority of it (80%) comes from human
consumption on land, which then is polluted into rivers which eventually ends
up in the ocean (Ryan et
al, 2009).

The Plastic has some astonishing statistics which show the
seriousness of the situation in regards to the plastic industry’s unsustainable
trajectory. It has been estimated that since its conception in human history
synthetic plastics account for around 6300 Megatons that has been created. Out
of this 6200 MT of
waste only 8% (500MT) has been recycled and reused. In addition to this 10-12%
was incinerated (630MT).  The remaining
amount (5170MT) was discarded into landfills or has been lost into our human
environment as plastic pollution (Geyer et al, 2017). The current trajectory of synthetic
plastics is very unsustainable , if the waste continues to grow at its current
rate without any major changes taking place to the life cycle of plastics then
it has been estimated that around
10,000 MT of plastic will be in the human environment or in landfills by 2050
(Geyer et al, 2017).

Life cycle of Plastics

Cradle to grave analysis is used in order to investigate the
plastic industry and identify a set of suitable design recommendations. Here
each part of the life cycle is analysed from its resource extraction phase (the
cradle) to its refinery stage from there to its transportation and usage stage,
to there the limited re-usage and finally the disposal stage (grave).

This approach has been taken so that each stage of the life
cycle can be assessed to identify any recommendations and improvements that can
be taken to help make the plastic industry’s model change from cradle to grave
into a cradle to cradle approach with a sustainable circular loop occurring (Figure
2) to help tackle the problems of plastic pollution and environmental damage,
whilst promoting sustainable behaviour patterns. I will be mainly by looking at
selected plastic products which account for the majority of the plastic
industry. The selected plastic products are going to be plastic packaging
plastic bags and plastic bottles.

The first step in the life cycle of
a plastic product is the extraction. The primary ingredient which is used to
make plastic products is crude oil and natural gas (EIA, 2017). Due to
excessive demand for plastic products I.E plastic bags a large amount of oil
and natural gas is needed globally. Figure three shows the oil requirements for
the 7 different types of plastic products with PVC (0.2KG per 1kg of plastic
produced) having the lowest mount of oil content and PMMA (1.2KG) having the
largest (Extruflex,

The second stage in the process is that of refining the oil or
natural gas in order to produce plastic pellets which are the foundation and building
blocks of plastic materials. In order to produce the granules or pellets the
oil is refined in a series of steps starting from heating the oil in order to
produce ethylene
this gas is then converted into polyethylene. This polyethylene is then cut
into Pellets which have now got a high density to them thus becoming HDPE (high density polyethylene). This is then
heated and moulded into plastic bags. This high density polyethylene is not
just used to create plastic carrier bags but many other plastic products for
example plastic pipelines, plastic bottles and plastic food containers.  

Plastics are produced Plastics are produced almost equally across
the globe, with 2013 statistics showing that China has the majority of the
production (24.8%) Europe is close behind with 20% and the Americas having
19.4% with the rest of Asia at 16.4% (Figure five). Figure six shows the energy
consumption for each type of plastic type used to make plastic bags, it also
shows how much waste each type of plastic produces per bag giving an idea of
the problem associated with the production of bags.

Plastic products and materials are then disturbed around the
globe from these places with the majority ending up in a variety of sectors
figure fives gives shows how the plastics are split up into different industries
across Europe.

Once the plastic bags have been distributed into locations.
They are handed out are products of convince to customers.  In the usage of plastic bags shows its major
problem, they are often just used on one occasion for example after a shopping
trip and then thrown away. In the USA alone there is around 100 Billion plastic
bags used annually to which 75% are sent to landfills (LeBlanc,
2017)There have been a number of schemes by governments to discourage the usage
of plastic bags and to encourage the re-usage of bags. For example the UK now
applying a mandatory 5p charge for each plastic bag in order to change the
behaviour patterns of consumers.

As outlined in the introduction plastics are only eligible
to take two directions when it comes to disposal.  The most popular direction that plastics are
disposed of is in landfills. With around 80% of all of the worlds produced
plastic (6.3 Billion MT) ending up in a landfill (Parker, 2017).

The second direction that plastics take is incineration.
Incineration takes place due to economic and geographical reasons. The economic
reasoning behind incineration is that it cost more to recycle and reuse old
plastic products than to produce new ones. Furthermore due to lack of space in
landfills incineration is the best option as it works out more cost effective
than compressing and storing plastic products in there.

There are some advantages to incineration in the long term in
comparison to landfills. The main one being that overall by incinerating
certain plastics it will produce less Co2 emissions than storing the plastic in
a landfill were it get degraded slowly however releases more C02 emissions over
the course of its 500 year degradation (Erikson and Finnveden, 2009).

The final stage of the product life cycle is the recycling
and reuse stage, here plastic products are not disposed of in a landfill or
incinerated instead the polymers which are eligible and meet the criteria  get recycled. At current most plastics have
the capability to get recycled however in most cases it is not economical
enough to reuse the product, instead it is cheaper to manufacture the plastic
from the cradle again.

The recycling rate for plastics in Europe was 26% in 2012 (Plastics Europe, 2013),
in comparison to the global figures the recycling rate stood at 9% (Geyer et al, 2017).  There are a number of techniques in which
plastics can get recycled.  The main
technique used at the moment is to melt the plastic so that it can go back to a
feedstock state.  Once back in its
original feedstock state it can be reused in any plastic application depending
on its purity. One of the major drawbacks to this would be that each time the
plastic has been used its purity level decreases therefore the only option is
to incinerate or dispose of it in a landfill once it reaches a purity level in
which it cannot be reworked again.

Recommendations for resource efficiency and reduced waste

There are a number of design recommendations in regards to
the product life cycle of plastic products which will help enable reduced
wastage of plastics globally and increased recourse efficiency of plastics


One of the best possible solutions and design recommendation
available at the moment to the plastic industry crisis is the increased usage
and replacement of plastics with Bio plastics. Bioplastics have a number of
advantages over conventional plastics and allow for a more sustainable approach
to the life cycle.

Bioplastics are defined as plastics or polymers which are
produced from renewable sources. Common examples of sources of bioplastics
include corn, starch, vegetable fats and oils (Chua et al, 1999). Bioplastics a similar of
myriad of applications as conventional plastics.  As a lot of bioplastics are used into the
food packaging industry and the disposable plastic industry too. 

Bioplastics main advantage comes from the fact that they can
be degraded by micro bacteria under the correct conditions. There are many
types of bioplastics which can even be decomposed into the soil so that compost
can be produced (Arikan
and Ozsoy, 2015). This degrading cycle continues on until the plastics
are completely decomposed into carbon dioxide and water.  There are however certain bioplastics which
have not been designed to be degradable under the right conditions instead they
are designed so that they have a longer life cycle therefore allowing
bioplastics to enter a number of industries were conventional plastic dominates
for example the use in automobiles (European Bioplastics, 2016)

Large multinational companies are now taking on bioplastics
in their production lines showing how bioplastics can help in a social and
environmental way as well as providing economic benefits too.  They can help benefit the business by
increasing their reputation as a “Green or environmental friendly business.”
One example of this is Coca-Cola’s new sustainability initiative called “Plant
bottle packaging”. This sustainable packaging is Coca-Colas attempt to
introduce bioplastics onto its production line. Here instead of using bottles
that are made of polyethylene terephthalate (conventional plastics) they use a
natural sugars to produce up to 30% of the bottle (Coca Cola, 2017).  Even though this is technology in its early
stages it is still providing a large number of advantages for Coca-Cola by
decreasing the carbon footprint associated with making plastic bottles and by
allowing for the bottles to be recycled more easily allowing for a more
circular and sustainable life cycle.

Government’s policy’s

Another design recommendation in regards to the plastic
industry would be the need for increased governmental regulation and
legislation in order to promote a move in paradigm to a more circular life
cycle of the plastic industry.

As governments are increasingly pushing for a more
sustainable economies there have been international efforts through intra-national
government agreements for example the Paris agreement in 2015.  There have also been various governments
introducing their own legislation in order to meet the targets set out on
global agreement accords such as the Paris agreement.

One example of this would be France. By introducing a ban on
disposable plastics such as cups cutlery and plates. This represents a
significant move in the removal of plastics from the economy. By forcing
companies to adopt new supply chains which are dependent on plastics coming
from renewable sources. Another example would be China banning the Imports of
plastic waste into the country (Taylor, 2018), this encourages behavioural
changes in the product life cycle of plastics as citizens of China have a
bigger incentive to recycle more plastics.   The EU
has made strides towards changing the life cycle of plastics with the use of
regulations and directives. In an attempt to promote the circular economy the
EU has put in programs worth 100 million euros on new technologies and has put
in an ambitious target of having all plastic waste recycled by 2030 (Toplensky,

Another example of government policy or legislation
attempting to tackle systematic issues within plastics life cycle would be the
example of both developed and developing countries now implementing the
mandatory charging plastic carrier bags. 
The UK in particular enacted this charge in October 2015 (Uk Government, 2015).  A number of benefits were associated with the
charging of plastic bags. Firstly it was estimated that around 7 billion
plastic bags were given out by shops within the UK, with the majority of these
bags being used and disposed of within 30 minutes of going to the shop thus
causing major plastic pollution across the UK. The 5p charge promoted the reuse
of bags and helped promote biodegradable bags. Statistics show that the number
of plastic bags given out by retailers in 2016 was around 1.2 billion bags
showing a substantial decrease of by around 5.8 billion bags providing the UK
with decreased costs for litter clean ups as well as helping reduce the UK’s
Carbon budget.

Incineration: waste to energy

There are currently efforts underway to
help find different and new applications for plastic waste. One of these new
applications is a scheme which allows plastic waste to converted into energy
when get incinerated.

Waste to energy Incineration works by going
through a waste combustion processes. Whereby there is two incineration tanks,
the first tank is the primary tank where the plastic waste is converted into
gas through a process called pyrolysis. Once the plastic has been converted
into a gas form. The gas is then used to power a steam generator thus producing

There are many advantages to using
Plastic to energy. The main advantage to this process is that Plastic energy
only uses materials that are not recyclable, therefore providing many
incentives for the reduction of landfills as the material in there can now be
put to economic usage.  Currently there
lies around £200 billion worth of plastic energy sitting in landfills globally (Plastic
Energy, 2017).

There are however various disadvantages
to Incineration as through incineration dangerous toxins are released into the
atmosphere. Figures from the EU commission (2006) show that for every ton of
plastic waste that is incineration around ¼ of the end product is toxic ash
containing various toxins and heavy metals which cannot be put back into


Overall, the Plastic Industry has the characteristics of
unsustainability, a linear life cycle and economy and high levels of
environmental damage and pollution globally. Therefore a new approach is needed
in order to help move the global plastic industry from a linear closed cycle
from cradle to grave to a more circular sustainable economy allowing plastics
to have a cradle to cradle life cycle.

In order to facilitate a move to a cradle to cradle life
cycle, the design recommendations highlighted in the report such as
Bioplastics, government regulation and policy as well as encouraging new
technologies such as waste to energy Incineration which allow a use after
disposal of plastics.

Other recommendations are highlighted here such as setting
up design standards which can be used globally for plastic products
specifically for plastic packaging. By setting up a globally recognised set of
design standards it will allow for new linkages to be created within the supply
chain thus allowing for an increased recycling and therefore an increased
circularity and efficiency to the plastic packaging industry.

Further recommendations include improvements on the getting
recycled material from plastics. For example the removal additives in plastic
products will help increase the amount of recycled plastics from 8% globally (Geyer et al,
2017) to a much higher percentage as the purity of plastics will increase
allowing more recycled applications and helping move from plastics from the
disposal stage back into the usage stage.

Plastics have become embedded into the global economy,
therefore there are going to arise systemic issues within plastics which are
going to be need an ever increasing urgency to change. The only way to do this
is through a circular and sustainable life cycle approach to plastics. The industry
has a lot of room to grow with increased demand for plastics increasing
annually. With the necessary triggers plastic has the potential to one of
pioneers in the upcoming global sustainable economy.






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