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Chinemelum talks about sustainable materials

Sustainable Materials: A step in the right direction

Innovation Manager, Chinemelum Nedolisa, talks to us about the uses of sustainable materials and his professional experience.

Sustainable materials have now become a popular trend in many industries because they create fewer environmental issues, leading to a greener planet. Sustainable materials can be manufactured and supported by natural means. Sustainability, in whatever capacity (be it in materials, energy or practices) implies that there is less negative effect on natural resources and people; they ensure that the environment is not depleting. Some materials are quite eco-friendly whereas others are less sustainable. For a material to be said to be truly sustainable, it must yield environmental, economic and social benefits; thus constituting the ‘Three Pillars of Sustainability’.

Products undergo a lifecycle that starts with production and culminates in disposal. Raw materials are obtained from nature, converted into useful products and have a productive life, and are then disposed of. Sustainable practices seek to evaluate every step in the cycle with a view to avoiding harm to the environment. Materials are said to be sustainable through recycling and repurposing, if they undergo some decomposition that is eco-friendly. It is always challenging to precisely work out the lifecycle of a plastic product; however, the lifecycles of single-use plastics (such as wrappers, straws and bags) are quite short as they are meant to be disposed of immediately after use, in a matter of minutes in some cases.

A product’s durability may be a disadvantage at the end of the product’s lifecycle. For instance, plastics have long-chain molecules that can take decades to break down, leading to wastes that last a long time. To solve this challenge, chemists have developed biodegradable synthetic materials that can be decomposed by sunlight and microorganisms.

Alternatively, when plastics have completed their use, they can be recycled. Recycling of plastics is quite sustainable because it lowers both the need for the use of virgin materials at the beginning of the lifecycle and landfill space at the end of the lifecycle.

We will now look at the relevance of sustainable materials in several industries, using the application of plastics as a case study. Plastics make a huge contribution to the environmental sustainability through their recyclability and energy-recovery potentials. In the context of UK economy, plastics are a major part of the economy and are an important export product. Socially, the plastics industry is an important employer, which also contributes to training and education of the UK’s workforce.

The use of plastics in the packaging industry has had significant benefits. Plastics are lightweight and offer excellent barrier properties, leading to the reduction of waste and increased energy saving. For example, food waste in the UK is at 2% due to the plastics packaging systems as compared with 40% to 50% food waste seen in developing countries. In the construction sector, plastics play a significant role in sustainable construction. Plastic foams have very good insulation properties and are very cheap to purchase. For instance, the use of PU foam insulation saves considerable amount of energy, thereby saving cost incurred by continuous heating. In the area of transport especially in the automotive sector, the increase in the use of plastics has led to the reduction in weight of vehicles as well as CO2 emissions. For instance, the increased use of plastics in a vehicle will drastically reduce fuel consumption.

It is important to note that other materials such as wood, bamboo and other plant-based materials are sustainable because they are naturally grown. Metals such as aluminium and copper are easily recyclable. Paper and related products can also be recycled and they decompose quickly when disposed of.

During my time at WMG, I worked with an SME interested in the compounding of dry malt waste (from brewery processes) with polypropylene (PP). The malt waste and PP were compounded at different concentrations using the extruder at WMG. The final extruded product could be used in making reinforced plastics/composites. Pellets were made from the extruded product and sent to the company to be injection-moulded into parts. The thermal and mechanical properties of the injection-moulded parts will then be evaluated in order to ascertain the right application for the injection-moulded parts. Waste malt was used in this project in order to have a final product with environmental good effects.

The importance of sustainable materials cannot be over-emphasized. Businesses should embrace the culture of incorporating sustainable materials in their manufacturing processes, as many customers are on the lookout for businesses that use sustainable materials. I am personally passionate sustainable materials, and see the increased use of these as a step in the right direction!