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Sustainable plastics: the world’s future materials

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Four members of the University of Minnesota’s Centre for Sustainable Polymers write about how making sustainable plastics is not just a pipedream.

Polymers are the giant molecules that make up plastics. These ubiquitous materials protect our foods, make our cars lighter and more efficient, and are in myriad household items.

Nearly all polymers are derived from fossil fuels, led by high-volume products such as polyethylene (PE), polystyrene (PS), and polyvinylchloride (PVC). In both their production and their disposal, these materials present inescapable environmental challenges that are costly to correct in the short-term and unsustainable in the long run.

Fortunately, the advent of a vibrant and growing bio-based chemical industry that does not rely on finite resources such as natural gas and oil as feedstocks provides a new driver for the invention of competitive and sustainable polymers, while simultaneously fuelling economic development and generating green chemistry jobs.

About 300m tons of plastic are produced globally each year, and only about 10% of that is recycled. Roughly 33% of plastic is designed for single use, and then is typically thrown away (e.g., most packaging materials).

Ironically, the very attributes that make plastic so desirable are the same things that make it so problematic. Plastic is inexpensive, lightweight, and durable, which makes it an ideal material for various industries (e.g., retail, packaging and manufacturing). However, because plastic is so desirable the volumes generated are huge, and because it is so durable it does not naturally erode in the environment on reasonable time scales.

Video: Plastics are a vital part of our lives, but they also are rife with adverse environmental impacts. In “Can We Make Plastics Sustainable?”, the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment and the Centre for Sustainable Polymers explore how we can enjoy the benefits of plastics and keep our planet healthy, too.

The accumulation of plastic waste over the last sixty years has culminated in an environmental crisis. One needs only walk a few yards along any of the Earth’s tens of thousands of miles of sandy beach to spot a fractured chunk of yesterday’s shiny new plastic creation.

Moreover, the petroleum market is notoriously volatile, and over the last decade as the price of petroleum has escalated, the cost of raw materials used in the production of polymers has also steadily risen. For example, from 1985-2007 the price of soybean oil in the US grew by just 50% while over the same time period the price of crude oil has risen 150%.

One strategy to address these problems is to use renewable resources to prepare polymeric materials with the same (or even better) properties as traditional plastics, but that will not carry the same environmental taxation associated with petrochemically derived plastics.

The Centre of Sustainable Polymers (CSP) at the University of Minnesota is pursuing this strategy.

The overarching goal of the CSP is to develop a comprehensive knowledge base that enables the efficient and economical conversion of natural and abundant molecules into tomorrow’s advanced polymeric materials. Such plastics are targeted to be compostable and biodegradable, ultimately alleviating the accumulation of plastic waste.

A recent study by the US Department of Agriculture estimated that renewable polymers could account for up to 20% of the global polymer market by 2025, so the future for these types of technology is close at hand.

CSP researchers are tackling the scientific challenges inherent in developing new, sustainable materials through multiple projects using a variety of approaches. For example, studies of the detailed chemical mechanisms by which biorenewable polymers are prepared are leading to the development of new, more efficient polymerisation catalysts.

New building blocks derived from plants for sustainable polymer synthesis are being developed and used to prepare complex polymer architectures that lead to useful properties. Thus, multiblock polymers built from natural starting materials are being pursued as thermoplastic elastomers and pressure sensitive adhesives.

Also, CSP researchers are preparing new vegetable oil-derived polyols that are key components of polyurethane (PU) foams. Polyurethane is one of the most versatile polymeric materials with regard to both processing methods and mechanical properties.

Based on the selection of reactants, the resulting PU can be a rigid material, a flexible elastic substance or even a viscoelastic gel. This wide range of achievable properties makes PUs an indispensable component in building construction, consumer products, transportation and medical devices.

The use of vegetable oil‐derived polyols in foam synthesis is not only desirable but also critical in reducing petroleum components in PU.

The CSP has adopted a multi-disciplinary basic research approach to developing, improving, and expanding bio-based polymers that is well-suited to the inherent challenges associated with innovation and development of these exciting new materials.

The centre has partnered with industry leaders to understand their needs and to seek guidance in research directions, and has also established collaborations with colleagues in the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs in order to foster relationships with legislative leaders and participate in policy decisions that may impact the direction of these industries.

Finally, we continue to reach out to the public in order to educate them about the importance of sustainable polymers as the world’s future materials.

Laura Seifert, Marc Hillmyer, Bill Tolman and Tom Hoye are all part of the University of Minnesota’s Centre for Sustainable Polymers.

Further reading:

Global food system crisis

The Great Recycle

Editors Choice

2017 Was the Most Expensive Year Ever for U.S. Natural Disaster Damage

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Natural Disaster Damage
Shutterstock / By Droidworker | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/droidworker

Devastating natural disasters dominated last year’s headlines and made many wonder how the affected areas could ever recover. According to data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the storms and other weather events that caused the destruction were extremely costly.

Specifically, the natural disasters recorded last year caused so much damage that the associated losses made 2017 the most expensive year on record in the 38-year history of keeping such data. The following are several reasons that 2017 made headlines for this notorious distinction.

Over a Dozen Events With Losses Totalling More Than $1 Billion Each

The NOAA reports that in total, the recorded losses equaled $306 billion, which is $90 billion more than the amount associated with 2005, the previous record holder. One of the primary reasons the dollar amount climbed so high last year is that 16 individual events cost more than $1 billion each.

Global Warming Contributed to Hurricane Harvey

Hurricane Harvey, one of two Category-4 hurricanes that made landfall in 2017, was a particularly expensive natural disaster. Nearly 800,000 people needed assistance after the storm. Hurricane Harvey alone cost $125 billion, with some estimates even higher than that. So far, the only hurricane more expensive than Harvey was Katrina.

Before Hurricane Harvey hit, scientists speculated climate change could make it worse. They discussed how rising ocean temperatures make hurricanes more intense, and warmer atmospheres have higher amounts of water vapor, causing larger rainfall totals.

Since then, a new study published in “Environmental Research Letters” confirmed climate change was indeed a factor that gave Hurricane Harvey more power. It found environmental conditions associated with global warming made the storm more severe and increase the likelihood of similar events.

That same study also compared today’s storms with ones from 1900. It found that compared to those earlier weather phenomena, Hurricane Harvey’s rainfall was 15 percent more intense and three times as likely to happen now versus in 1900.

Warming oceans are one of the contributing factors. Specifically, the ocean’s surface temperature associated with the region where Hurricane Harvey quickly transformed from a tropical storm into a Category 4 hurricane has become about 1 degree Fahrenheit warmer over the past few decades.

Michael Mann, a climatologist from Penn State University, believes that due to a relationship known as the Clausius-Clapeyron equation, there was about 3-5 percent more moisture in the air, which caused more rain. To complicate matters even more, global warming made sea levels rise by more than 6 inches in the Houston area over the past few decades. Mann also believes global warming caused the stationery summer weather patterns that made Hurricane Harvey stop moving and saturate the area with rain. Mann clarifies although global warming didn’t cause Hurricane Harvey as a whole, it exacerbated several factors of the storm.

Also, statistics collected by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from 1901-2015 found the precipitation levels in the contiguous 48 states had gone up by 0.17 inches per decade. The EPA notes the increase is expected because rainfall totals tend to go up as the Earth’s surface temperatures rise and additional evaporation occurs.

The EPA’s measurements about surface temperature indicate for the same timespan mentioned above for precipitation, the temperatures have gotten 0.14 Fahrenheit hotter per decade. Also, although the global surface temperature went up by 0.15 Fahrenheit during the same period, the temperature rise has been faster in the United States compared to the rest of the world since the 1970s.

Severe Storms Cause a Loss of Productivity

Many people don’t immediately think of one important factor when discussing the aftermath of natural disasters: the adverse impact on productivity. Businesses and members of the workforce in Houston, Miami and other cities hit by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma suffered losses that may total between $150-200 billion when both damage and sacrificed productivity are accounted for, according to estimates from Moody’s Analytics.

Some workers who decide to leave their homes before storms arrive delay returning after the immediate danger has passed. As a result of their absences, a labor-force shortage may occur. News sources posted stories highlighting that the Houston area might not have enough construction workers to handle necessary rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Harvey.

It’s not hard to imagine the impact heavy storms could have on business operations. However, companies that offer goods to help people prepare for hurricanes and similar disasters often find the market wants what they provide. While watching the paths of current storms, people tend to recall storms that took place years ago and see them as reminders to get prepared for what could happen.

Longer and More Disastrous Wildfires Require More Resources to Fight

The wildfires that ripped through millions of acres in the western region of the United States this year also made substantial contributions to the 2017 disaster-related expenses. The U.S. Forest Service, which is within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, reported 2017 as its costliest year ever and saw total expenditures exceeding $2 billion.

The agency anticipates the costs will grow, especially when they take past data into account. In 1995, the U.S. Forest Service spent 16 percent of its annual budget for wildfire-fighting costs, but in 2015, the amount ballooned to 52 percent. The sheer number of wildfires last year didn’t help matters either. Between January 1 and November 24 last year, 54,858 fires broke out.

2017: Among the Three Hottest Years Recorded

People cause the majority of wildfires, but climate change acts as another notable contributor. In addition to affecting hurricane intensity, rising temperatures help fires spread and make them harder to extinguish.

Data collected by the National Interagency Fire Center and published by the EPA highlighted a correlation between the largest wildfires and the warmest years on record. The extent of damage caused by wildfires has gotten worse since the 1980s, but became particularly severe starting in 2000 during a period characterized by some of the warmest years the U.S. ever recorded.

Things haven’t changed for the better, either. In mid-December of 2017, the World Meteorological Organization released a statement announcing the year would likely end as one of the three warmest years ever recorded. A notable finding since the group looks at global land and ocean temperature, not just statistics associated with the United States.

Not all the most financially impactful weather events in 2017 were hurricanes and wildfires. Some of the other issues that cost over $1 billion included a hailstorm in Colorado, tornados in several regions of the U.S. and substantial flooding throughout Missouri and Arkansas.

Although numerous factors gave these natural disasters momentum, scientists know climate change was a defining force — a reality that should worry just about everyone.

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Environment

How to be More eco-Responsible in 2018

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eco-responsible
Shutterstock / By KENG MERRY Paper Art | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/kengmerrymikeymelody

Nowadays, more and more people are talking about being more eco-responsible. There is a constant growth of information regarding the importance of being aware of ecological issues and the methods of using eco-friendly necessities on daily basis.

Have you been considering becoming more eco-responsible after the New Year? If so, here are some useful tips that could help you make the difference in the following year:

1. Energy – produce it, save it

If you’re building a house or planning to expand your living space, think before deciding on the final square footage. Maybe you don’t really need that much space. Unnecessary square footage will force you to spend more building materials, but it will also result in having to use extra heating, air-conditioning, and electricity in it.

It’s even better if you seek professional help to reduce energy consumption. An energy audit can provide you some great piece of advice on how to save on your energy bills.

While buying appliances such as a refrigerator or a dishwasher, make sure they have “Energy Star” label on, as it means they are energy-efficient.

energy efficient

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By My Life Graphic

Regarding the production of energy, you can power your home with renewable energy. The most common way is to install rooftop solar panels. They can be used for producing electricity, as well as heat for the house. If powering the whole home is a big step for you, try with solar oven then – they trap the sunlight in order to heat food! Solar air conditioning is another interesting thing to try out – instead of providing you with heat, it cools your house!

2. Don’t be just another tourist

Think about the environment, as well your own enjoyment – try not to travel too far, as most forms of transport contribute to the climate change. Choose the most environmentally friendly means of transport that you can, as well as environmentally friendly accommodation. If you can go to a destination that is being recommended as an eco-travel destination – even better! Interesting countries such as Zambia, Vietnam or Nicaragua are among these destinations that are famous for its sustainability efforts.

3. Let your beauty be also eco-friendly

eco-friendly

Shutterstock / By Khakimullin Aleksandr

We all want to look beautiful. Unfortunately, sometimes (or very often) it comes with a price. Cruelty-free cosmetics are making its way on the world market but be careful with the labels – just because it says a product hasn’t been tested on animals, it doesn’t  mean that some of the product’s ingredients haven’t been tested on some poor animal.

To be sure which companies definitely stay away from the cruel testing on animals, check PETA Bunny list of cosmetic companies just to make sure which ones are truly and completely cruelty-free.

It’s also important if a brand uses toxic ingredients. Brands such as Tata Harper Skincare or Dr Bronner’s use only organic ingredients and biodegradable packaging, as well as being cruelty-free. Of course, this list is longer, so you’ll have to do some online research.

4. Know thy recycling

People often make mistakes while wanting to do something good for the environment. For example, plastic grocery bags, take-out containers, paper coffee cups and shredded paper cannot be recycled in your curb for many reasons, so don’t throw them into recycling bins. The same applies to pizza boxes, household glass, ceramics, and pottery – whether they are contaminated by grease or difficult to recycle, they just can’t go through the usual recycling process.

People usually forget to do is to rinse plastic and metal containers – they always have some residue, so be thorough. Also, bottle caps are allowed, too, so don’t separate them from the bottles. However, yard waste isn’t recyclable, so any yard waste or junk you are unsure of – just contact rubbish removal services instead of piling it up in public containers or in your own yard.

5. Fashion can be both eco-friendly and cool

Believe it or not, there are actually places where you can buy clothes that are eco-friendly, sustainable, as well as ethical. And they look cool, too! Companies like Everlane are very transparent about where their clothes are manufactured and how the price is set. PACT is another great company that uses non-GMO, organic cotton and non-toxic dyes for their clothing, while simultaneously using renewable energy factories. Soko is a company that uses natural and recycled materials in making their clothes and jewelry.

All in all

The truth is – being eco-responsible can be done in many ways. There are tons of small things we could change when it comes to our habits that would make a positive influence on the environment. The point is to start doing research on things that can be done by every person and it can start with the only thing that person has the control of – their own household.

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