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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

Economy

How Going Green Can Save A Company Money

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going green can save company money
Shutterstock Licensed Photot - By GOLFX

What is going green?

Going green means to live life in a way that is environmentally friendly for an entire population. It is the conservation of energy, water, and air. Going green means using products and resources that will not contaminate or pollute the air. It means being educated and well informed about the surroundings, and how to best protect them. It means recycling products that may not be biodegradable. Companies, as well as people, that adhere to going green can help to ensure a safer life for humanity.

The first step in going green

There are actually no step by step instructions for going green. The only requirement needed is making the decision to become environmentally conscious. It takes a caring attitude, and a willingness to make the change. It has been found that companies have improved their profit margins by going green. They have saved money on many of the frivolous things they they thought were a necessity. Besides saving money, companies are operating more efficiently than before going green. Companies have become aware of their ecological responsibility by pursuing the knowledge needed to make decisions that would change lifestyles and help sustain the earth’s natural resources for present and future generations.

Making needed changes within the company

After making the decision to go green, there are several things that can be changed in the workplace. A good place to start would be conserving energy used by electrical appliances. First, turning off the computer will save over the long run. Just letting it sleep still uses energy overnight. Turn off all other appliances like coffee maker, or anything that plugs in. Pull the socket from the outlet to stop unnecessary energy loss. Appliances continue to use electricity although they are switched off, and not unplugged. Get in the habit of turning off the lights whenever you leave a room. Change to fluorescent light bulbs, and lighting throughout the building. Have any leaks sealed on the premises to avoid the escape of heat or air.

Reducing the common paper waste

paper waste

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By Yury Zap

Modern technologies and state of the art equipment, and tools have almost eliminated the use of paper in the office. Instead of sending out newsletters, brochures, written memos and reminders, you can now do all of these and more by technology while saving on the use of paper. Send out digital documents and emails to communicate with staff and other employees. By using this virtual bookkeeping technique, you will save a bundle on paper. When it is necessary to use paper for printing purposes or other services, choose the already recycled paper. It is smartly labeled and easy to find in any office supply store. It is called the Post Consumer Waste paper, or PCW paper. This will show that your company is dedicated to the preservation of natural resources. By using PCW paper, everyone helps to save the trees which provides and emits many important nutrients into the atmosphere.

Make money by spreading the word

Companies realize that consumers like to buy, or invest in whatever the latest trend may be. They also cater to companies that are doing great things for the quality of life of all people. People want to know that the companies that they cater to are doing their part for the environment and ecology. By going green, you can tell consumers of your experiences with helping them and communities be eco-friendly. This is a sound public relations technique to bring revenue to your brand. Boost the impact that your company makes on the environment. Go green, save and make money while essentially preserving what is normally taken for granted. The benefits of having a green company are enormous for consumers as well as the companies that engage in the process.

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Energy

5 Easy Things You Can Do to Make Your Home More Sustainable

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sustainable homes
Shutterstock Licensed Photot - By Diyana Dimitrova

Increasing your home’s energy efficiency is one of the smartest moves you can make as a homeowner. It will lower your bills, increase the resale value of your property, and help minimize our planet’s fast-approaching climate crisis. While major home retrofits can seem daunting, there are plenty of quick and cost-effective ways to start reducing your carbon footprint today. Here are five easy projects to make your home more sustainable.

1. Weather stripping

If you’re looking to make your home more energy efficient, an energy audit is a highly recommended first step. This will reveal where your home is lacking in regards to sustainability suggests the best plan of attack.

Some form of weather stripping is nearly always advised because it is so easy and inexpensive yet can yield such transformative results. The audit will provide information about air leaks which you can couple with your own knowledge of your home’s ventilation needs to develop a strategic plan.

Make sure you choose the appropriate type of weather stripping for each location in your home. Areas that receive a lot of wear and tear, like popular doorways, are best served by slightly more expensive vinyl or metal options. Immobile cracks or infrequently opened windows can be treated with inexpensive foams or caulking. Depending on the age and quality of your home, the resulting energy savings can be as much as 20 percent.

2. Programmable thermostats

Programmable thermostats

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By Olivier Le Moal

Programmable thermostats have tremendous potential to save money and minimize unnecessary energy usage. About 45 percent of a home’s energy is earmarked for heating and cooling needs with a large fraction of that wasted on unoccupied spaces. Programmable thermostats can automatically lower the heat overnight or shut off the air conditioning when you go to work.

Every degree Fahrenheit you lower the thermostat equates to 1 percent less energy use, which amounts to considerable savings over the course of a year. When used correctly, programmable thermostats reduce heating and cooling bills by 10 to 30 percent. Of course, the same result can be achieved by manually adjusting your thermostats to coincide with your activities, just make sure you remember to do it!

3. Low-flow water hardware

With the current focus on carbon emissions and climate change, we typically equate environmental stability to lower energy use, but fresh water shortage is an equal threat. Installing low-flow hardware for toilets and showers, particularly in drought prone areas, is an inexpensive and easy way to cut water consumption by 50 percent and save as much as $145 per year.

Older toilets use up to 6 gallons of water per flush, the equivalent of an astounding 20.1 gallons per person each day. This makes them the biggest consumer of indoor water. New low-flow toilets are standardized at 1.6 gallons per flush and can save more than 20,000 gallons a year in a 4-member household.

Similarly, low-flow shower heads can decrease water consumption by 40 percent or more while also lowering water heating bills and reducing CO2 emissions. Unlike early versions, new low-flow models are equipped with excellent pressure technology so your shower will be no less satisfying.

4. Energy efficient light bulbs

An average household dedicates about 5 percent of its energy use to lighting, but this value is dropping thanks to new lighting technology. Incandescent bulbs are quickly becoming a thing of the past. These inefficient light sources give off 90 percent of their energy as heat which is not only impractical from a lighting standpoint, but also raises energy bills even further during hot weather.

New LED and compact fluorescent options are far more efficient and longer lasting. Though the upfront costs are higher, the long term environmental and financial benefits are well worth it. Energy efficient light bulbs use as much as 80 percent less energy than traditional incandescent and last 3 to 25 times longer producing savings of about $6 per year per bulb.

5. Installing solar panels

Adding solar panels may not be the easiest, or least expensive, sustainability upgrade for your home, but it will certainly have the greatest impact on both your energy bills and your environmental footprint. Installing solar panels can run about $15,000 – $20,000 upfront, though a number of government incentives are bringing these numbers down. Alternatively, panels can also be leased for a much lower initial investment.

Once operational, a solar system saves about $600 per year over the course of its 25 to 30-year lifespan, and this figure will grow as energy prices rise. Solar installations require little to no maintenance and increase the value of your home.

From an environmental standpoint, the average five-kilowatt residential system can reduce household CO2 emissions by 15,000 pounds every year. Using your solar system to power an electric vehicle is the ultimate sustainable solution serving to reduce total CO2 emissions by as much as 70%!

These days, being environmentally responsible is the hallmark of a good global citizen and it need not require major sacrifices in regards to your lifestyle or your wallet. In fact, increasing your home’s sustainability is apt to make your residence more livable and save you money in the long run. The five projects listed here are just a few of the easy ways to reduce both your environmental footprint and your energy bills. So, give one or more of them a try; with a small budget and a little know-how, there is no reason you can’t start today.

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