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Making the Switch to Sustainable Materials? It's Not That Simple

Creating something more sustainable rarely comes down to simply changing one material for another. Instead, companies must address a number of safety, reliability and performance considerations when using recyclable materials in manufacturing, whether on a small or large scale.

Man looks at a blue gadget made with additive manufacturing

October 25, 2019

Now more than ever, companies are making a push to incorporate green initiatives and materials into their manufacturing processes, often establishing sustainability divisions to help achieve their goals. They’re discovering that going green doesn’t just mean doing what’s better for the Earth, it also translates into a healthier bottom line by reducing costs and increasing access to resources.

“The circular economy is about replacing the traditional linear model of sourcing virgin materials for manufacturing with one that conserves energy and resources, and reduces waste in an economically feasible way,” said Mark Kardos, senior sustainability consultant at UL’s Environment and Sustainability division.

“We’re seeing a lot of industries making efforts to adopt a circular approach as they rebuild their production infrastructure,” he said. “These efforts are still very much in the early stages, but organizations are successfully addressing new challenges in figuring out the best ways to achieve sustainably under this model.”

A higher standard

The electronics industry has been an early leader in advancing more environmentally sustainable manufacturing policies and practices.

“The electronics space is one of the areas where we’ve seen a really big push toward zero-waste — not just at the final-tier assembly but actually throughout the entire supply chain,” Kardos explained. “For example, we’ve been working closely with Apple which has adopted ambitious policies around zero waste and has also introduced recycled materials into some of their products.”

Kardos said it’s worth noting that leading companies in multiple industries are also engaged in waste diversion – Walmart, Firestone Building Products, BASF and ExxonMobil, to name a few.

“ExxonMobil has taken their entire lubricants division toward zero-waste,” he noted. “Many companies start small by rolling out their zero waste commitments at a few sites. ExxonMobil, on the other hand, made a more ambitious commitment to tackle waste by seeking certification under UL 2799 Zero Waste to Landfill Certification Program at all 22 of the company-owned sites in this division.

“This was a major effort on their part to look at where the environmental impacts are in their supply chain and to work in meaningful ways to begin mitigating those impacts.”

Upping the ante

But creating something more sustainable rarely comes down to simply changing one material for another. Instead, companies must address a number of safety, reliability and performance considerations when using recyclable materials in manufacturing, whether on a small or large scale.

“When a product designer is looking to switch materials in their products, they have to consider a number of factors related to material functionality, processability and performance,” explained Thomas Fabian, UL’s research and development manager for polymer material science. “For example, will the product made with an alternative material still function as it did with the former material? Can the product be produced using the same manufacturing processes as before, or will it require changes in equipment? And how might the alternative material affect critical performance requirements like safety?

“And, of course, what about the cost?”

Fabian and his team at UL investigate the performance properties of materials under a variety of conditions, such as whether they are more combustible or how they might contribute to the spread of a fire. They are also evaluating how material properties may be affected by additive manufacturing (AM) techniques such as 3D printing or, on the other hand, what changes in AM technologies might be required to process those materials.

“If an alternative material is more difficult to process, then a company may have to change its process or its equipment in order to use it,” Fabian said.

There are also safety considerations with respect to recycled materials. Recycling materials for reuse may require the introduction of additional elements into the material composition. Some materials, such as plastics, may not possess the same consistency or structural integrity once they’ve been recycled one or more times. And recycling electronics may contribute to an increase in the content of heavy metals and other hazardous materials.

“But there are projects underway today that are designed to address the quality and performance concerns related to recycled plastics,” UL’s Kardos noted. “In fact, UL is engaged in PolyCE, a multiyear consortium demonstration project under the European Union Horizon 2020 program designed to transform the life cycle of e-plastic material into a more sustainable one. The work of PolyCE may well lead to changes in the way we recycle plastics and help to mitigate some of these issues.”

Making financial sense

Experts agree that if a company can draw upon its own supply chain in its sustainability endeavors, it can be hugely beneficial to the bottom line.

“There is simply no question that this form of direct recycling into products makes doing the environmentally responsible thing highly economic,” said Joshua Pearce, a professor in Michigan Technological University’s department of electrical and computer engineering.

In some of their recent findings, Pearce’s research group for technology and sustainability determined that waste plastic could be converted into 3D printing filament with a recyclebot.

“We have been working with a 3D printer manufacturer to directly 3D print from waste,” Pearce said. “This is much more sustainable, particularly if the plastic waste is biopolymers.”

Pearce pointed to recent research showing that the use of the industrial 3D printer called the Gigabot X could reach returns on investments of greater than 1,000% when used to manufacture large products from waste material.

The “new normal”

Closed-loop recycling and the circular economy are still new concepts to many, but waste diversion and zero waste commitments are tangible, and therefore easier for many organizations to grasp right away. In the U.S., it costs an average of $55 per ton to transport waste to a landfill, so cutting down on waste can clearly result in significant reductions in business expenses and help boost bottom-line profitability.

“When a company starts to work toward zero-waste initiatives, there can be huge savings, especially at the beginning,” UL’s Kardos said. “There are often high-value materials such as recyclable plastics and metals that are the ‘low-hanging fruit’ so to speak, and which can be diverted with relative ease. It’s flipping from something that was formerly a cost and creating an income stream instead.”

From Kardos’ perspective, these types of initiatives are rapidly becoming the norm in business practices.

“Sustainability concepts are no longer considered a separate or external factor when you’re making your final decisions,” Kardos noted. “They’ve become integrated into the design and sourcing of materials and components, and the production processes, because they are functionally crucial to the business model and company performance.”

In other words, obtaining materials via closed-loop cycles instead of relying on virgin materials can make supply chains more resilient and help manufacturers avoid supply chain surprises, regardless of their cause.

“This approach actually becomes a driver to increase both profitability and supply chain resilience,” Kardos said.

This article was originally published in On the Mark, a UL magazine.  Sarah Newkirk is the author. Read more stories about the growing connection between sustainability and business by downloading the magazine.