5 steps to reduce the chemical footprint of plastic products

By switching the type of plastic used in its IV bags, Dignity Health care system kept 700,000 pounds of high-concern chemicals — the equivalent in weight of a Boeing 747 airplane — out of the environment, according to BizNGO's new analysis of plastics, The Plastics Scorecard v.1.0.

Starting from fossil fuels, the steps in plastics manufacturing are littered with chemicals of high concern to human health and the environment. For companies looking to reduce their use of high-concern chemicals, plastics are a huge challenge — and a significant opportunity to reduce their chemical footprint.

In The Plastics Scorecard, we identified over 244 million metric tons of high-concern chemicals used in the manufacture of plastics. For example, plastics consume 96 percent of all Bisphenol A or 3.9 million metrics tons annually. BPA and other high-concern chemicals such as benzene, styrene and phthalates can pose significant risks to the health of workers, communities and the global environment across the life cycle of plastics.

Shifting to safer plastics will improve the health and safety of workers and communities, spur the development of green chemistry and create new markets for companies, workers and communities alike. So how do we get there? The Plastics Scorecard is the first comprehensive method for evaluating the chemical footprint of plastics and a guide for selecting safer alternatives.

How does your plastic rate?

The Plastics Scorecard evaluates plastics based on two criteria, Manufacturing Score and Product Footprint.

Credit: BizNGOThe "Progress to Safer Chemicals in Manufacturing Score" evaluates plastic polymers on a scale from 0 (most hazardous) to 100 (most benign). In evaluating 10 polymers, the findings were mixed.

Five commonly used polymers score 0 due to the intensive use of high-concern chemicals at every step of manufacturing: polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polycarbonate, polystyrene, styrene butadiene rubber (SBR) and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS).

Three polymers — polylactic acid (PLA), polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP) — are much further along the path to safer chemicals in manufacturing because their core chemicals inputs are not chemicals of high concern.

Two polymers — polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA) — are in the mid-range.

The Product Footprint measures the number and percent weight of chemicals of high concern in plastic products. It enables purchasers to evaluate products based on their content of highly hazardous chemicals. The report found that by switching to safer plastics or additives, manufacturers of IV bags and electronics can sell products with a significantly lower chemical footprint. For example, by switching from PVC to non-PVC IV bags, health organizations are significantly reducing their use of reproductive/developmental toxicants and endocrine disruptors such as DEHP and BPA.

5 steps to safer plastics

The Plastics Scorecard lays out a five-step program for companies seeking to reduce the chemical footprint of their plastics:Credit: BizNGO

1. Is it necessary? A critical approach to chemicals in general and plastics in particular, especially plastic additives, is to first ask: Is it necessary? For many plastic additives, evaluate if it's necessary for the performance of the product. For example, Kaiser Permanente recently announced it is eliminating unnecessary flame retardants in upholstered furnishings.

2. Find safer additives. In cases where plastic additives are necessary, there are many routes for reducing a product's chemical footprint. First, and often the easiest route, is to substitute high-concern additives with safer alternatives. For example, in the electronics sector, companies are replacing brominated flame retardants with safer alternatives. Figure 2 [ES-3] illustrates how electronic companies dramatically can reduce the chemical footprint of chemicals in products by selecting safer alternatives.

3. Use safer polymers. The most important thing companies can do to reduce their chemical footprint is to shift to safer polymers with better manufacturing scores and fewer additives — thereby reducing both the additives of high concern and the manufacturing footprint. For example, when Dignity Health switched to non-PVC IV bags, it eliminated roughly 1,543,467 pounds of PVC as well as 673,023 pounds of the reproductive toxicant DEHP and 33,651 pounds of the endocrine disruptor BPA over a six-year period.

4. Close the loop and use post-consumer recycled content. PCR content holds the potential of significantly reducing the chemical footprint of a plastic product by bypassing the impacts of polymer manufacturing. In general, using PCR content is a preferred route for reducing the chemical footprint of a polymer and a plastic product. A challenge with PCR content can be the legacy of the past use of chemicals of high concern in plastics manufacturing. For example, the recycling and reuse of polyurethane foam means that companies continue to keep the persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic (PBT) flame retardant pentabromodiphenyl ether (pentaBDE) in the economy. Concerns with legacy toxic chemicals in PCR plastics should be a driver to reduce the chemical footprint of plastics.

Redesign the product. Product redesign holds the potential of both enhancing the value of the product while reducing its chemical footprint. For example, companies can redesign electronic products such that plastic parts do not come into contact or into proximity with parts that heat up, thereby obviating the need for flame retardants. The redesign of chairs to use wire mesh instead of foam reduces the weight and avoids foam that requires flame retardant chemicals.

Credit: BizNGOUltimately the success of reducing the chemical footprint of plastics will require greater transparency on the chemicals in products. Chemical footprinting holds the potential to create a metric for measuring progress away from chemicals of high concern and toward safer alternatives. A challenge to managing chemicals in products and supply chains always has been, as the business adage goes, "You can't manage what you can't measure." To date companies have lacked clear metrics for measuring progress to safer chemicals. The Plastics Scorecard, by creating a framework for chemical footprinting, creates a metric by which companies can manage chemicals and measure progress.

If successful, the Plastics Scorecard will advance the development and use of plastics that use inherently safer chemicals in all steps of polymer production as well as in the selection of additives — thereby greatly reducing the costs of hazardous chemicals all along the lifecycle of plastics, from manufacturing to use to disposal.

Plastic bottles image by Pressmaster via Shutterstock.