Renewable plastics in design

Shell’s plastics plant under construction in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. Image credit: Julie Dermansky for DeSmog.

Welcome to this blog devoted to discussing the latest innovations in renewable plastics and plastic industry news relevant to designers. Production of plastics is set to reach over 1.5 billion tonnes by 2050, more than three times the quantity produced in 2020. By that time there will be more plastic in the sea than fish while production of plastic will consume 15% of the available carbon budget. Despite the fact that these targets are not sustainable, the petrochemical industry is investing in new plastic production facilities to fulfil this expected increase in demand. Shell announced the opening of one, mid-sized, facility near Pittsburg just days before the United Nations Climate Change Conference COP27. Ironically, when fully operational, the $6 billion plant will produce enough GHG emissions to effectively wipe out all the reductions in carbon dioxide planned by the nearby city of Pittsburgh in their efforts to combat climate change through to 2030. There are at least twenty other plants under construction across the United States and many other throughout the world. To halt this construction, we must reduce demand for plastics or at least stem the growth in demand. But replacing plastics with traditional material like wood, metal or glass often results in worse environmental outcomes. Glass bottles weight more than PET bottles and consume 40% more fuel during transportation. A plane built with a carbon fibre fuselage consumes about 20% less fuel than its aluminum reliant predecessor. There are ways to continue working with plastics while reducing the environmental impacts of your creations. Bioplastics, made entirely or partly from renewable organic resources are becoming increasingly available. Used plastics collected from households, industry or even the ocean are being recycled at ever increasing volumes. Each of these materials, collectively referred to as renewable plastics, has its own unique aesthetic and mechanical characteristics which need to be explored and understood before they can be used to make products. This blog is dedicated to keeping you informed of the latest developments in the plastics industry that are of particular relevance to industrial designers. Case studies will examine how these new materials are being used in design and the barriers that need to be overcome when working with bioplastics and recycled plastics.