Plastic Dreams

medium_laurel2015.jpgThe weekly Verdigris blog by Laurel Brunner

Paper is one of the world’s most readily recycled materials. It is based on a renewable resource that aids in the expansion of our planet’s lung capacity. Paper may be our most pervasive substrate, but it is not the only material used in printing and publishing applications. In packaging and in the sign and display sectors, plastic is extremely popular.

Plastic has much to commend it for packaging and signage. It’s durable and can be configured to meet all sorts of requirements, from flexibility to stretchability. It is durable and works well with different print processes. However many of plastic’s strengths are also severe limitations when it comes to recycling and managing end of life. Basically not much of either goes on. Take plastics such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET), commonly used for bottles. It often ends up in landfill where it can take over 400 years to biodegrade or it gets incinerated. This latter option at least has the benefit of contributing to energy generation.

The good news is that technology doesn’t stand still, so other options are coming along. These possibilities offer an interesting prognosis for the recyclability of plastics in the graphic arts. Bioplastics for instance are based on vegetable fats and oils or cornstarch and biodegrade as a result of bacterial activity. We have yet to see bioplastics widely used in the printing business, but we are seeing them used as coatings in packaging.

Another option is to upcycle plastics, so that they can be used in new applications. A small company in New Zealand has developed a technology that turns plastic waste into building blocks. This is a proprietary technology specifically designed to upcycle waste plastic. It uses water held under pressure at very high temperatures ranging from 100ºC and 374ºC, and compresssion, but it does not melt or otherwise degrade the polymers in the plastic. ByFusion’s machine turns the waste plastic into an alternative building material which it calls RePlast. The blocks have undergone testing to ensure that they comply with various building requirements related to compression and shear strength. ByFusion is working hard to make sure that their blocks comply with international requirements. In New Zealand and California these blocks have been used to construct retaining walls without showing signs of degradation. In areas prone to earthquakes these blocks may even be more suitable than concrete blocks, because they are flexible.

The ByFusion process works with pretty much any type of plastic, with the exception of foamed plastics such as polystyrene as these materials lack the structural integrity required for upcycling into building blocks. But coming up with a way to upcycle waste plastic is only a small part of the story. We also need sorting and waste collection streams that get the waste to where it is needed if it is to be a viable raw material. That part of the equation is still missing.

– Laurel Brunner

The Verdigris project is an industry initiative intended to raise awareness of print’s positive environmental impact. It provides a weekly commentary to help printing companies keep up to date with environmental standards, and how environmentally friendly business management can help improve their bottom lines. Verdigris is supported by the following companies: Agfa Graphics, EFI, Epson, Fespa, HP, Kodak, Kornit, Ricoh, Spindrift, Splash PR, Unity Publishing and Xeikon.

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