Every product consumes resources and has an environmental impact. Sustainability is not only a question of the raw material used, but also depends on factors such as use in the customer’s application, service life and end-of-life options. Considering these factors over the life cycle is crucial for assessing how sustainable a product is. This applies to any product made of any material. In this way, ecological, technical and economic advantages can be combined.
Life cycle assessment
When considering products ecologically over their entire life cycle, the question arises: What makes a product sustainable?
According to the Deutsches Institut für Normung (German Institute for Standardisation), an environmentally sound product is one that complies with the required consumer benefit in comparison with conventional products, but uses fewer resources in production, use and disposal and has less impact on the environment. The useful life of the product must be taken into account in this regard.
The use of resources is associated with emissions and other environmental impacts. Considering these environmental impacts at every stage of the life cycle is part of a holistic environmental assessment.
Careful use of resources
The ecological consideration begins with the selection of the raw material used at the beginning of the product life cycle. Depending on the source material, different emissions and environmental impacts have to be taken into account. In doing so, the use of secondary raw materials that emerged from a previous product life cycle is more resource-efficient than primary raw materials that are newly extracted for the manufacture of a product.
The origin of the raw materials used also plays a role, because the longer the distances, the longer the transport routes that leave a significant ecological footprint in our world.
In addition, the manufacturing process has a significant impact on the environmental impact. The more energy-intensive the processing and production, the more resources are consumed and emissions are generated.
The careful use of resources of all kinds is one of our main goals. We continuously analyse and optimise our material cycles and energy flows. We focus on the use of sustainable raw materials.
Sustainability in application
A significant part of the life cycle of a product is the utilisation phase. It depends on the service life of a product. The more durable the product, the less often it needs to be replaced. In addition to uninterrupted use, this also contributes to saving resources in the form of spare parts.
We have been processing plastics for industrial applications for more than a hundred years. Based on this experience, we know that because of their special properties, fossil-based plastics contribute to the conservation of resources in many industries, e.g.:
buses become lighter with our plastic components and then consume less fuel
conveyor systems equipped with our sliding-optimised plastic components require less energy
thermal insulation made of our plastics reduces the necessary heating times in machines and systems
A responsible use of resources includes recycling at the end of a product’s life cycle. Depending on material type, the possibilities can vary from material recycling to raw material processing to final thermal recycling for energy generation.
Thermoplastics are easy to recycle as they can be mechanically shredded and plastically reshaped within a certain temperature range. Many of our thermoplastics are recycled after use and reused for equivalent purposes.
In composite materials, separating the different composite materials usually involves a lot of effort and is difficult to achieve from an economic point of view. Nevertheless, new options are constantly being developed in this area as well. In the case of glass fibre-reinforced plastics, for instance, the glass fibres can be removed from the composite by thermal processes and used as filler material for further applications. This means that our composite materials can also serve as raw materials for future products after their use phase.
Life cycle assessment
An established tool for recording the environmental impacts of a product is life cycle assessment (LCA). It is used to assess the ecological footprint of a product along its life cycle. This makes sustainability measurable and comprehensible - and not just a feel-good issue.
The life cycle assessment is a holistic consideration of various environmental impacts and thus goes beyond a pure CO2consideration.
At the beginning of a life cycle assessment, the objective is formulated and the system boundaries are defined. The level of the value chain usually influences the scope of consideration: Cradle-to-gate (from cradle to factory gate) or cradle-to-grave (from cradle to disposal).
The core of LCA is the life cycle inventory analysis, in which all input and output flows are considered in the - depending on the defined system boundary - relevant phases of the life cycle: from raw material extraction, processing to the end product, the usage phase and disposal, including all transport routes.
When considering the life cycle inventory analysis, data on emissions and environmental impacts are collected in the various phases, which in turn have an impact on various impact categories, such as climate change and water consumption.
As a result, the calculated data for the individual impact categories provide information on relevant environmental impacts such as the carbon footprint, water footprint, natural resource consumption and impacts on human health and the quality of our ecosystem.