The Many Paths Towards Sustainability

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You’ve no doubt heard the word ‘sustainability’ recently.  It’s one of the latest topics concerning manufactured products.  Can it be more environmentally friendly?  Can it be recycled?  Is it biodegradable or compostable?  All of these answers add up to a sustainable product.  For some manufacturers, it’s easy to design from scratch, keeping in mind the long-term effects of their products.  They can design many features to make their product more Earth-friendly.  But what if you have an existing product today, and want to put it on a path to become more sustainable?  Do you know what steps to take to start down that road?  If not, or you’re ready to start researching a new product, we’ll look at the steps to be more sustainable and how porous polymers can help with your progress.

What Does Sustainability Really Mean?

If you ask ten people what being sustainable means, you’ll most likely get ten different answers back.  Most will have an approximation of the term, but the definition from each person may be somewhat vague.  When you think of sustainability, what visions come to mind?  You may think of plastics floating into our oceans. You may think of products utilizing green materials like bioplastics with polymers produced out of natural ingredients. You might also ponder the carbon footprint and its impact on manufacturing. You could think of recycling, biomass, biodegradation, virgin plastics, etc. So many things come to mind when you think of sustainability.

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The U.N. World Commission on the Environment defines sustainable development as, “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  How we get to sustainability without compromising the future is a challenge that has many options. Some of the ideas are to regenerate our natural systems, design out waste and pollution, and keep products and materials in use.

How Do We Regenerate Our Natural Systems?

All of the materials we use to create products come from a natural source.  We may use crops harvested directly from the ground in their natural form, or we might take something natural and change it into a synthetic source for another purpose.  The long-term effect of continually using natural materials is that, eventually, they will run out.  That may be years or decades in the future, but everything has a finite source.  The goal of regeneration is to reuse by-products from current manufacturing processes to alleviate the strain on natural resources. 

How Can We Eliminate Waste and Pollution in Manufacturing?

The next idea with sustainability is designing out the waste in manufacturing and decreasing pollution from the product and its by-products.  Some products can utilize a redesign that reduces the waste out of manufacturing.  That could be changing materials, simply changing shapes or a complete redesign of the product.  Beyond the product, the process can be changed, the tooling and equipment can be modified to eliminate waste, and personnel could be enhanced to achieve better results.

To eliminate pollution, one of the first things to understand about the product is where it will end up when it has served its design purpose.  Once you know how it will be disposed, you can then target the materials to be more biodegradable.  Biodegradable materials are materials that are going to degrade over time in the natural environment.   They’ll turn back into biomass, which is composed of carbon atoms.  If your product is going to end up most likely in the ocean through normal disposal methods, then you want to make sure you’re designing your biodegradation for a marine environment. If your product is likely to end up in a landfill, then it should be designed for biodegradation in that environment.  

Can You Extend the Life of a Product?

The last idea we’ll mention in sustainable product development is to extend the life of the product.  This can be done through things like remanufacturing or finding innovative collection methods to bring back products to your factory to remanufacture or refurbish.  You can also explore concepts like products as a service where instead of selling a product, you’re selling a service to use that product.  You now maintain ownership of that product, and it makes it easier to capture again for a refurbishment.  Could you design your product to use a modular design that replaces just a portion of a product when needed? These ideas can extend the life of a product, and also reduce the waste that may later end up in a recycling or landfill environment.

Next Steps

At Porex, we have committed to reducing the use of virgin plastic by 25% in new products by 2025.  For more information on our sustainability program, check out our press release, our webinar on designing sustainable products, or our sustainability website.  We’re supporting many other manufacturers with a similar goal for their next generation of products.  What’s your goal for the future?  If you have ideas, but aren’t sure if a porous polymer is your best option, contact our engineers and ask for support by filling in our Sustainable Design Request form.  We’re here to help you and your products meet your sustainable goals, even if it’s an idea we have already explored.  We all have a responsibility to meet our needs for today without jeopardizing the needs of tomorrow.  We’re already on the path.  Are you ready to join us?