Product Innovation – a Report on Plastics

Introduction Plastics have inspired and continue to give an impetus driving innovation that helps to solve society’s greatest challenges from lifesaving technologies to more sustainable living. In 1850s, plastics were first introduced by Alexander Parkes in the UK while the demand for natural polymers like amber, tortoise shells and animal horns was increasing but their supplies were limited (Andrady and Neal, 2009). As created to have similar and comparable properties to those natural polymers, plastics or synthetic polymers have been accepted to be innovative products and widely used in all industries. To date, there is a very few thing around the world which are not made of plastics. What are Plastics? Plastics are synthetic materials which typically are produced by polymerizing small single molecules known as monomers derived from petrochemical plant (Thompson et al, 2009) or other organic materials such as wood fibers, corn or banana peels. They are divided into two main categories, namely Thermoplastics and Thermosets. Significantly, the majority of plastics produced are Thermoplastics due to being moldable, reheated and reformed repeatedly without chemical change, whereas the latter can be formed only once and will be decomposed after reheat (Gloag, 1946). Although there are many different types of plastics in each group with different characteristics, all plastics have their general attributes including resistance to chemical, thermal and electrical insulators, lightweight, various degree of strength and wide range of characteristics and colours (American Chemistry Council). They can be mixed with a wide range of additives, depending on required finished products, to improve mechanical, physical or chemical properties such as foamed structure, flame retardancy, surface appearance improvement or friction reducing (American Chemistry Council). Plastics consumption Since they can imitate natures, plastics inevitably have been involved and revolutionized our lives for more than a century. The amount of global plastic production has increased over the last 60 years, from 1.7 million tones in 1950 to approximately 280 million in 2010 (Plastics Europe, 2013). Interestingly, there are four main reasons for such an increase in plastics consumption. Firstly, plastics can enhance their properties relating to toughness, lightness and chemical resistance by adding various types of chemical additives. For example, plasticizers allow plastics to be more flexible. This can be found in food packaging and processing such as plastic film wraps (American Chemistry Council). UV stabilizers, in particular, are added to prevent plastic degradation. Thus, the normal addition of various additives leads to both radical and incremental products innovation in all industries including packaging industry, building and construction industry, automotive industry, electrical and electronic industry and others (Plastics Europe, 2013). Secondly, plastics can be molded and transformed into a wide range of forms which are necessary in all industries ranging from clothing to cutting edge technologies. Thirdly, in comparison with natural materials, plastics are inexpensive and capable of industrial cost saving. Therefore, they replace most of previous key materials such as natural polymers like metal and woods. Lastly, culture change also has an impact on the demand for plastics. Plastics were taken into account as an innovation in packaging industry, as Figure 1: World plastic production Macintosh Macintosh Source : Plastics – the Facts 2012 : An analysis of European plastics production ,demand and waste data for 2011 replacement for glass and aluminium packaging, when consumers demanded for product visibility (Lange and Wyser, 2003). Although most of plastics are not transparent, they can be added some additives to create transparent plastics, such as Acrylic (polymethlamethacrylate), Butyrate (cellulose acetate butyrate), Lexan (polycarbonate) and PETG (glycol modified polyethylene terphthalate). Societal benefit of plastics 1. Plastics reduce carbon monoxide emission from transportations. Due to their light weight, plastics reduce vehicles’ weight and fuel burning, resulting in less carbon monoxide emissions which contribute to global warming. Nowadays, 20 % of private or public vehicles is made of plastics, typically in door liners, steering wheels and electronics, to make vehicles lighter than using other materials such as metals (Andrady and Neal, 2009). Wings and fuselage of Airbus A380, for instance, are designed to use 22% of carbon fibre plastics compound and consequently can result in 15% fuel saving (Plastics Europe, 2013). 2. Plastics offer health benefits in many ways. In food industry, plastics are used extensively as food containers. PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate), in particular, is normally employed for drinking water bottle, to keep food and water fresh and reduce food and water waste (American Chemistry Council). More importantly, plastics can protect water from contamination caused by water supply. Thus, metal pipes in original pipe system which became rusty because of Oxidation of iron in water (BBC Bitesize) were replaced by plastic pipes. Additionally, in medical aspect, plastics also offer a wide range of medical advantages such as medical packaging and devices including blood and IV bags, supporting tubes, syringes and surgical equipment (SPI, 2013). Obviously, they are incorporated into hospital design as they assist in easy cleaning and sterilizing operation room as well as isolation area against infectious and medical advance technology, especially involving restoration of heart, joints and teeth functions and creation of artificial plastic blood (Plastics Europe, 2013). 3. Initiate economics growth and employment opportunities. As great demand of plastics, there are more than 1.6 million people are employed in the European plastics industries with 300 million euros turnover (Thompson et al, 2009). 4. Plastics enable more efficient renewable energy. Plastics can be used for an innovation of generating renewable energy such as wind energy and solar energy. To produce wind energy by windmills, using fibre-reinforced plastics (FRIP) in production of a plastic blade and a plastic rotor offers 33% saving on Greenhouse Gas emission (GHGs) which are the major factor of climate change (Plastic Europe, 2012). In addition, 98% of solar cells are plastic photovoltaics which provide more cost-efficiency, flexibility and GHGs saving than rigid silicon solar cells (Plastic Europe, 2012). 5. Plastics lead to advance technology. Plastics possess the properties of thermal resistance, light weight and lower cost. Consequently, they are always engaged in developing electronic products and applications. For example, in hybrid solar cells, a new generation of solar cells from a combination between plastics and nanotechnology causes lower cost and is easier to be produced than their semiconductor counterparts. 6. Improve building and construction performance as well as save energy. Insulation foams or Polystyrene (PS) is recognized as one of the most energy-efficient building materials. By comparing insulation properties between insulation foam and concrete, 1.6 centimeters thick of rigid plastic foam is equivalent to 1.3 meters concrete thick (Plastic Europe, 2012). Furthermore, an installation of plastic applications such as doors and windows frames tends to be easy as they are lighter than other materials. Also, plastics can be used for road base-courses. A Styropor foam, commonly known as EPS, is a thermoplastic replacing concrete in construction of road when load-bearing subsoil is poor, to prevent soil deformation from the weight of concrete (GeoTech Systems Corporation, 1993). The potential example in this respect is the 100 % recycled plastic bridge in the Onion Ditch Bridge; a new bridge in Logan County, Ohio, whose important parts were water bottles and detergent bottles which were made of PET plastics. In construction and civil engineering, plastics are usually molded into I-Beam or I-shaped sectors in order to create strength and lightweight (Rhey, 2012). Opportunity to be failure products Although plastics become basic components in all industries as they bring numerous societal benefits, there are several concerns that might cause their failure in the future. Firstly, plastics cause public health problems. Most of additives, including bisphenol A (BPA) ,which are found in many products such as medical devices, food containers, cosmetics, toys and flooring material, and Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDE), are toxic and can transfer directly from plastic packaging to human (Thompson et al, 2009). The second is waste management problems. Owing to their durability, plastics require a great amount of time for degradation or biodegradation, depending on the chemical compounds of materials and additives added. Moreover, they never burn easily as they melt and bubble and cause a terrible and dioxin smell. Most importantly, plastics cause environmental problem. If they are destroyed by burning, they will emit hazardous gas such as hydrogen chloride gas which causes greenhouse effect and eventual climate change. Moreover, if they are buried into the land, it will bar eluviation of rain water, possibly resulting in flood. Even though 26% of used plastics such as plastic bottles can be recycled, a considerable proportion of 38% is arranged into landfill (Thompson et al, 2009). As a result, toxic from additives in plastics will contaminate surrounding environments like rivers, seas or oceans. Conclusion Plastics are described as a very successful product innovation indicated from a continuous increase in demand and their productions. There are three main success factors for plastics to become success innovative product. Firstly, their adaptable molecule structure for various unique properties such as flexibility and durability and forms lead to many technological advance in all industries. Secondly, they bring numerous societal benefits including health and environmental benefits and employment. Lastly, they have lower cost than other materials. However, there is an opportunity for them to obtain failure in the future because they can bring about important problems, particularly concerning environment and public health. 1

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