Towards improving the environmental impact of plastics

Researchers at the UNESCO Chair in Life Cycle and Climate Change ESCI-UPF show that the use of functional fillers in the plastic industry may help to reduce environmental emissions.

Published in Science of the Total Environment, the study attracts attention to the proper application of life cycle assessement in order to understand filler’s environmental advantages.

 Explicatory graphic about Didem Civancik-Uslu’s paper. Credits: own elaboration.

Explicatory graphic about Didem Civancik-Uslu’s paper. Credits: own elaboration.

Scientists from the New Materials and Technologies Research Line at the UNESCO Chair in Life Cycle and Climate Change ESCI-UPF have shown that the use of functional fillers −diluents introduced into plastics to improve their properties and provide cost reduction− in plastics may help to reduce environmental emissions, depending on its application. “Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) studies reveal that using fillers reduces the impact on resources, and mineral fillers in plastics provide better performances and sustainable options,” explains Pere Fullana, Director of the Chair.

Published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, the review study analyses the use of fillers to reduce the environmental damage that plastic causes by decreasing the need for petrochemical resources. “Functional fillers have been widely used in industry for many years, but their environmental impacts have not been fully investigated. For example, up to now, no published studies have been found in which the environmental impact of the filler calcium carbonate has been investigated,” explains Didem Civancik-Uslu, first author of the study and PhD Student funded by GCR Group at the Chair.

As a response to growing concerns about the environmental damage that plastic causes, the study focuses on the environmental impacts of functional fillers used in polymer compounds; both organic and inorganic fillers. “Most of the studies analysed in this review show that the environmental impacts of plastics can be reduced through the addition of functional fillers while maintaining or improving the required technical properties of the conventional material,” explains the researcher.

 

Life cycle assessment of materials

By investigating the LCA methodology used in the reviewed studies, the scientists have concluded that LCA is a good tool to make the environmental analysis of materials. “In order to decide if a composite is environmentally better than other, we need to look through the life cycle of materials because one material can be good at one life cycle stage but it maybe worse in another life cycle stage, depending on its application,” stresses Civancik-Uslu. “For example, the bamboo fiber may be considered environmentally friendly, since its natural, but transportation of natural fibers like bamboo from Thaïland to Europe has an impact on their carbon footprint,” she adds.

This research is consistent with Chair’s knowledge about the life cycle assessment methodology. “The results of LCA are application specific and no general conclusions should be driven,” says Civancik-Usl. Therefore, attracting attention to the use of functional fillers in plastics and proper application of LCA methodology paves the way to understanding their environmental advantages in the application base. “We should focus more on investigating the environmental impact of functional fillers, with a special focus on the end of life scenarios or recyclability of plastics with fillers that have not been deeply investigated,” she highlights.

Therefore, “much effort on this issue is needed especially considering that circular economy is one of the main sustainable drivers nowadays,” points out Fullana. In the near future, “we will go on to analyse the environmental impacts of using mineral fillers, like calcium carbonate, in different packaging applications,” he adds.

Considering the current plastic pollution situation and the search for alternatives to reduce these impacts at an industrial and academic level, the results of this study addresses the needs of both sectors. “For industry, it could be interesting because the environmental impacts of fillers used in different applications have been investigated, and they may consider using them. For LCA experts, it is important because we are pointing the gaps in literature, and the scientific community may consider investigating these functional fillers in their future works,” concludes Civancik-Uslu.

 

This study has been supported by the GCR Group through the Chair's Industrial PhD Programme, that supports Didem Civancik-Uslu PhD Thesis.


Reference article:

Civancik-Uslu, D., Ferrer, L., Puig, R., Fullana-i-Palmer, P. (2018). Are functional fillers improving environmental behavior of plastics? A review on LCA studiesScience of the Total Environment, 626, 927–940.

 

For more information or collaborations:

Didem Civancik-Uslu, This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

 

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