The discussion brought up a lot of wonderful questions. Dr. Dent took some time to respond to the questions. You can view them below. To provide some context to the discussion, you can review the full replay.
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Most sustainable materials and companies working towards sustainability end up being too expensive for the general masses. Is there a way to work around it, or does it just ends up being a marketing ploy…?
Andrew Dent, Ph.D.: Currently, if you replace a standard plastic with a more sustainable plastic, you may end up paying a little more. The prices have been coming down steadily over the last 10 years, though.
We always recommend our client instead try to redesign based upon the product’s needs and use the bioplastic’s (or whatever it is) inherent properties that in some cases may be better than the original. Can the part be thinner? Can it be molded more quickly? etc. Also, market the sustainability! Plenty of companies use this as their main marketing focus.
Many plastics can be recycled such as PP, PET, HDPE, LDPE, and they are hard to live without at this juncture. Wouldn’t a better solution be to press a campaign to change behaviors (from waste to recycle) and enable municipalities to adopt adept recycling and re-purposing methods?
Andrew Dent, Ph.D.: Changing behavior is very much the best way forward! But we humans are lazy and don’t like being told what to do… So, we also have to attack the other things that we CAN change. I personally believe that recycling of the plastics you state are actually a very good way to go if we can create better recycling infrastructure. Let’s try and attack this on all fronts to move it forward.
Is monomaterial the solution? We are already tackling the huge mess created by MLPs packaging in India and due to the sheer volume and cost there isn’t any viable comparable solution.
Andrew Dent, Ph.D.: Monomaterials are a potential solution where there is no need for gas, moisture or UV barrier. Where there are needs for performance, they tend not to do so well.
Yes agreed, the single use packaging is causing challenges with waste. Convenience is the scourge of many communities because even though we can make a multilayer film recyclable (the MERF collaboration that Michael was talking about), it still needs to be collected.
Since we in the US can only recycle 25% of PET soda and water bottles with a functioning infrastructure, the simple change in human behavior to take more care with its waste will remain a challenge.
Do you foresee a carbon tax being applied to raw materials to regulate their value and prop up rPET as a viable option, versus competing with an oil price below $0?
Andrew Dent, Ph.D.: Oil prices cannot remain at this low price. It will go up again and rPET will become more competitive. I do however believe in carbon taxes, as we need to understand that the cost of a bad material choice is much more than the raw material cost. Until the full cost of single use plastics is taken into account, we will not have the resources to bring the waste issue (and the better reclamation of PET from waste streams) under full control.
Do you think more companies will go the cruelty-free route for manufacturing and sourcing materials?
Andrew Dent, Ph.D.: They should, though there are levels of cruelty that humans mostly are willing to deal with (meat for food). Certainly, this is already the case for most non-essential products (cosmetics etc.) and there are restrictions and guidelines already in place for a lot of this. Though companies like Stella McCartney are very much moving this forward, it has not been adopted to any real extent (beyond exotic farmed animals) by the major retailers.
How do you see the circular economy of reuse changing the material sourcing supply chain?
Andrew Dent, Ph.D.: My hope is it will revolutionize it, but it may take a very long time. The idea is what we all hope for, but it requires compromises and cost increases that many may not be willing to accept. We will keep on pushing the concept to our clients every time we connect, but it also requires ALL of the company and its supply chain as well as its customers to get on board. Some are moving in the right direction, but most are not doing anything more than just talking about it.
Do you see local sourcing and manufacturing outpacing/replacing the global supply chains of present and past?
Andrew Dent, Ph.D.: No. Local can be used for some production, but there are many processes that use toxic and restricted chemicals, need resources that are typically only available in certain geographical locations, or do not have sufficient volume of need to warrant production capabilities in every place. The two should work in tandem. Local when we can, and global when we need. Also, corporations DO NOT like local production because it restricts control and efficiencies of large volume manufacturing.
How do the big companies like L’Oréal source for raw materials? And do they consider sourcing raw materials from Africa eg. shea butter?
Andrew Dent, Ph.D.: Though I would defer to Michael on this, I believe they already source globally and also responsibly. They will go where the best solutions are but also make sure that they are not depleting or harming the location they source from.
It is my understanding that PET can only be recycled one time. Does this really help the issue? Also, just because a material is biodegradable it is not necessarily good. Some products degrade into not so friendly products.
Andrew Dent, Ph.D.: PET can be MECHANICALLY recycled 2-4 times, but it degrades each time you do it, so you need to add more virgin plastic to the mix each time you mold it again. CHEMICAL recycling (using a solvent to dissolve the plastic before reforming it) enables you to do it an infinite number of times. Biodegradtion when done properly (using the right type of biodegradable additives) ensures that the plastic is broken down into humus, water and CO2. If you have nasty color pigments or other additives, yes, these will be then left in the ground to contaminate water/ecosystem. The answer is to use the right ingredients for both the biodegration and the colors etc.
Has anyone actually run PLA through their equipment? It is horrible on extruder barrels and screws and really tears up equipment…and it’s not recyclable… It is compostable in the correct environment/conditions and very expensive, customer are not willing to pay for it.
Andrew Dent, Ph.D.: True. But newer versions with additives and performance enhancers mean that it is much better to handle than the pure stuff (much like aluminum – the pure stuff is mostly useless). It CAN be recycled but not in our current US municipal systems other than in the ‘7’ ‘other’ group. Yes, it needs industrial composting, but will degrade safely in your backyard compost, just not in the 180 days required for the ASTM certification – maybe within a year if thin enough? Costs are coming down. But also, if you can design with the unique properties of the material in mind, you may be able to charge higher prices for value added performance (I did just spend over $1000 for a phone so people are willing to pay for performance if it’s worth it).
How feasible is it to see a shift to manufacturing in the US post-covid? What efforts from companies and government are needed to make it happen?
Andrew Dent, Ph.D.: It is feasible but will take some time (Michael and my answers about the need for ancillary production around a major producer, say Apple, to ensure all parts are available). Government is trying to help (tariffs) and the company has to decide that American customers are willing to pay extra for the ‘Made in America’ label.
Humanity will not survive if every piece of plastic disappears from Earth today. How to stop the demonizing of all plastics and shift the focus to using plastic more responsibly until there is a viable solution to replace plastic?
Andrew Dent, Ph.D.: See above responses.
Isn’t the masks, PPE on the ground simply a litter problem? Not a sustainability problem? Address the litter problem? Same as plastics?
Andrew Dent, Ph.D.: Yes. It is bad in Brooklyn, I will be the first to admit.
Isn’t oil pricing a temporary situation? It will likely rise again until alternative energy resources are fully employed.
Andrew Dent, Ph.D.: Agreed. Then rPET will be viable again.
What is the role of government policy in promoting or protecting local supply chains while keeping the costs acceptable to consumers?
Andrew Dent, Ph.D.: In the US, we have limited Govt interference beyond tariffs and agreements. It will be up to the US consumer to change their habits for purchasing cheap goods to make a real difference.
We’d like to thank you all for joining us for Materials for an Extreme Future. Your participation, questions, and feedback have offered wonderful insight for us as well.