Plastics – Key Materials for Sustainable Development
Plastics – Key Materials for Sustainable Development
Reinhold W. Lang Institute for Polymeric Materials and Testing Johannes Kepler University (JKU) Linz, Austria
When it comes to mastering the grand challenges facing global societies, three political events in 2015 with long-term consequences have had the most significant impact on an international and European level, these being (1) the ratification of the UN Sustainable Development Goals in the context of Agenda 2030 (SDGs 2030), (2) the Paris Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change for a dramatic reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and (3) the EU Circular Economy Initiative.
With regard to the sustainable development goals in Figure 1, the importance of plastics is already reflected in the structures and designations of the 17 SDGs. This applies directly to global goals SDG 6 (Clean water and sanitation), SDG 7 (Affordable and clean energy), SDG 9 (Industry, innovation and infrastructure) and SDG 12 (Responsible consumption and production), but also, more broadly, to SDG 2 (Zero hunger) if, for example, one considers the significance of plastics in agriculture and food logistics, or SDG 3 (Good health and well-being) and SDG 11 (Sustainable cities and communities) when the latter is considered in the context of buildings, infrastructure, mobility/transport, etc. A digital info & teaching tool developed at JKU was recently made available online to both illustrate the correlations between global challenges, SDGs and plastics and ensure their broad accessibility: sdg-info.polysustain.com
Together with the fact that many existing markets and applications areas are of considerable importance for global goals, typical properties and characteristics are the primary shapers of the particular role polymer materials play in sustainable development:
multifunctional material property profiles which are variable within broad boundaries and can be tailored to specific requirements,
efficient, highly flexible processability for component creation coupled with a high degree of design freedom and extraordinary functional integration options and
good economic efficiency through conservation of resources during manufacture, processing and application coupled with a high, regional and global capacity for growth.
With regard to the meta-level definition of sustainable development1, the question is still how, in specific and quantitative terms, the intra/intergenerational demand for global prosperity for a world population growing to 9 or 10 billion can be translated into technology and materials. The key in this respect is INNOVATION, with an economic and technological focus on decoupling of prosperity and the consumption of resources and the transition to a sustainable circular economy. An important guiding principle for technologies in sustainable development is, consequently, the consistent reduction (minimising) of the material and energy intensity of each product/function unit (or service unit) when considering the system as a whole and, where possible, simultaneous exploitation of renewable and recyclable resources (i.e. development of recyclable structures and processes for a substantial share of the materials and energy turnover).2 Closer consideration of this gives rise to demands for an increase in resource productivity by a factor of around 5 to 10 up to 2050 (at least in the case of non-regenerative resources).
Figure 2: The UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development (SDGs 2030) and plastics.
The correlation between SDGs, the technologies and innovation goals derived from these and the most important plastics markets is illustrated in Figure 2. Simultaneous consideration of the aforementioned principles requires realignment of existing plastic products and markets and, no less important, of development and innovation strategies. At the same time, future perspectives for the plastics industry are excellent. With regard to energy and material efficiency based on material performance and future cascading and integrated approaches to regenerative energy/material technologies in an all-circular carbon management economy, the primarily carbohydrate (CHO) basis of plastics ensures their attractiveness in this context.1 It can therefore be assumed that, overall, plastics and the plastics industry will be among the winners in the imminent economic and societal transformation towards sustainable development.
Finally, it should be noted that the focus on SDGs and related considerations regarding innovations and technological guidelines for sustainability is even more pronounced in the context of current mega-trends like Digital Transformation and Industry 4.0.
Footnotes: 1) “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Source: Our Common Future (Brundtland Report); UN WCED 1987 2) Inaugural lectures of R.W. Lang at MU Leoben (1994) and JKU Linz (2010) 3) For details, see: R. W. Lang in “Werkstoffe und Materialien für die Energiewende”; publisher Bolt et al (acatech MATERIALIEN), Munich: Herbert Utz Verlag; 2017; p. 21 et seq.
(Univ.-Prof. Dipl.-Ing. Dr. mont.) Professor Reinhold W. Lang is Chair of the Institute for Polymeric Materials and Testing (IPMT) at Johannes Kepler University Linz, Austria. He is a member of the Scientific Council of K2019 with responsibility for the leading issue of Plastics for Sustainable Development. He has been involved in this area since the 1990s and is a member of the Austrian Council for Sustainable Development. His current activities include heading the Austrian research platform SolPol on the issue of Polymer-based innovations for solar technology and membership in the steering committee of the UniNEtZ - Universities for Sustainable Development Goals project launched in 2019 in which a total of 15 Austrian universities are involved.
“Plastics harbour extraordinary innovative potential for technologies in sustainable development. This makes them the most significant material class and a technological driving force for sustainable development.“
United Nations Sustainable Development Goals
o.Univ.Prof. Dipl.-Ing. Dr.mont. Reinhold W. Lang states why the topics circular economy, water management and renewable energy are of particular importance concerning the plastics industry and the plastics development.
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