Manufacturers sense an opportunity not only to reduce plastic waste disposal, but also to serve a growing demand from customers who are eager to promote their eco-friendly credentials. In the past, some plastic waste would be reground for reuse in the same products. But repurposing plastics from post-industrial or post-consumer waste involves a more complex and costly process to fully reconstitute the plastics for other products, while still maintaining a predictable output for quality control. We are finding that some customers are now willing to pay that added price to deliver more environmentally sustainable products to their buyers.
Many clever methods are being tested to repurpose plastics in the production of patient monitoring machines, ultrasound and imaging systems, diagnostic equipment, and surgical robots. For instance, new green bio-based plastics are being fabricated with some organic materials mixed into the resins, such as wood fiber, cellulose, or corn-based products.
Unfortunately, most of these novel green plastics are being developed on an as-needed basis, so they remain expensive and in limited supply. Organic blends currently cost two to four times more than traditional resins. But, as more companies head in this direction, we expect overall costs for these types of smart plastics to fall.
The Covid pandemic has been an accelerant to this trend of plastics reuse due to the ramped-up production of test kits, face masks, sanitary goods, and other single-use products. Devices such as ventilators, heart monitors, and oxygen monitors also require lots of plastic parts.
At Sanmina, we recently conducted a reuse study for a product made of polycarbonate. After regrinding 100 percent of the plastic, we compared it to the original product, and it met 90 percent of the mechanical requirements. Now the customer is serving a new market for an eco-friendly product that appeals to environmentally conscious consumers.
Getting Strategic About Going Green
Many organizations are focusing attention on when to use recycled plastics instead of virgin plastics in their products. Some products require a virgin plastic due to quality and engineering standards, but many items can be made from cheaper repurposed materials to reduce costs and waste.
On the flip side, plastics can be used more strategically to make large industrial products more lightweight – but just as durable – by replacing sheet metal, aluminum, or glass with plastic components. In this way, heavy equipment, cars, planes, and ships can be made lighter to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels and electricity.
In a recent development, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) introduced the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2021 on March 25. It is the most comprehensive bill to address plastic pollution ever proposed in Congress. The bill creates incentives for reusable plastics that can be recycled, but the Plastics Industry Association has pushed back against the idea.
While the debate continues, the good news is that our manufacturing community is taking positive steps to become better stewards of the environment across a range of production processes. But we can only understand what we can measure, so at Sanmina, we have implemented new metrics to track how much plastic waste we regrind on an annual basis. Our production team is now accountable for meeting environmental KPIs, just as we must meet financial KPIs.
The added costs of using repurposed plastics will inevitably be passed on from OEMs to their customers. However, industry and government regulators are exploring new incentives to reward greener production processes and outcomes. The European Union has taken the lead in this area through educational training programs and financial inducements for the reuse of plastics. We can benefit from similar steps in North America to promote a more sustainable approach to plastics production and disposal.
Obviously, plastic waste has become a big environmental problem for our landfills, ecosystems, and oceans. As responsible community members, manufacturers need to rethink how to conduct a profitable business while implementing greener ways to produce new products using plastics.
Scott Schoenborn manages the Sanmina plastics manufacturing plant in Turtle Lake, Wisconsin, and is a longtime expert in the field.