PLEXIGLAS®: A valuable material even after use
Plastics are indispensable in many areas of life. As insulation they aid in conserving energy, make façades and windows more durable and protect people from sun and noise. Nonetheless, plastics are criticized as microplastics can be found in even the most remote glaciers on Earth and carpets of plastic waste in the ocean are as large as some countries. However, it is possible to utilize the benefits of plastics while also avoiding a negative impact on the environment – with the help of circular economy.
The circular economy is a more sustainable alternative to a traditional linear economy that consists of production, use and disposal. In contrast, a circular economy, in short, makes use of the utilized resources for as long as possible and reintroduces them to the production process once the service life of a product is over.
For example, this approach is at the heart of the European Commission’s “European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy.” But the Association of Plastics Manufacturers, PlasticsEurope, also considers the circular economy to be the central approach for a more sustainable use of resources as a voluntary commitment.
PLEXIGLAS® can make a considerable contribution to the circular economy and help shape a more sustainable and resource-efficient future in line with the following principles:
- Avoidance comes before reuse: PLEXIGLAS® helps reduce waste with its high durability.
- Appropriate disposal: PLEXIGLAS® is not hazardous or special waste and can therefore be recycled without any problems.
- Don’t waste, recycle: PLEXIGLAS® can be broken down into its original components to create new PLEXIGLAS® products.
The life cycle of plastics
When observing the entire life cycle, the properties of plastics allow them to make an important contribution to a sustainable use of resources.
Growing amounts of plastic waste
According to PlasticsEurope, the amount of plastics produced worldwide grew exponentially over only a few decades: from 1.5 million metric tons in 1950 to 359 million metric tons in 2018. The amount of plastic waste also grew accordingly, with Europeans alone producing 29.1 million metric tons of plastic waste in 2018. In 2006, this figure was only 24.5 million metric tons.
However, not all plastic waste is the same. The total amount includes a variety of different materials that are used in very diverse areas of application. A large share of produced plastics is used for short-lived disposable items such as packaging. In contrast, other plastics are used for durable consumer goods. Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), as is the chemically correct name for acrylic glass, is one of the plastics used to make predominantly high-quality, durable consumer goods.
Avoidance comes before reuse
For example, PMMA is used in durable construction applications which, thanks to the material’s weather resistance, remain fully functional even after being in use for several years and do not have to be replaced prematurely. Utilization periods of 30 years and longer are common for exterior applications such as façades, noise barriers, or industrial or private roofs. The durability of PLEXIGLAS® therefore delays replacement, saves resources and prevents waste – an important step for a sparing use of resources.
Share of individual types of plastic in plastic waste
Polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP) account for a large proportion of plastic waste in Germany. Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) only makes up a small amount of waste, which can be further divided between various PMMA products. Among these, PLEXIGLAS® accounts for significantly less than one percent of the entire plastic waste in Germany, according to data by Conversio Market & Strategy GmbH.
Plastic demand by type and segment
Plastics are extremely versatile: Sometimes, the entire product consists of one plastic, such as bottles made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Others are part of finished products, e.g. light conductors made of PMMA for the lighting industry. Since the utilization periods for individual applications vary greatly, the amount of produced plastic does not necessarily correlate with the amount of waste for the same year. However, it is certain that durable products prevent the need to manufacture new products at an early stage, save resources and prevent waste.
Why plastics end up in the environment
According to the German Federal Environment Agency, plastics mainly end up in the environment due to insufficient waste and waste water management around the world. This can also happen because the smallest of particles break off while the product is in use. Products with a short lifespan frequently pose a problem for the environment, which is why plastic bags and other single-use items are being prohibited in more and more countries worldwide.
The circular economy not only aims to make use of the utilized resources for as long as possible, but also to reuse them. This means that finished products need to be reintroduced to the recycling loop after their utilization period in the first place. The same applies for waste generated during production.
But for plastic waste to be reintroduced to the recycling loop, everyone involved in the recovery chain needs to play their part – plastics producers, manufacturers of finished products made from plastics and the end users themselves. For example, producers like us, Röhm GmbH, are working in various initiatives to ensure that plastics do not end up in the environment.
Furthermore, we have been immediately reintroducing all cut-offs from the production of PLEXIGLAS® products into a recycling loop for years. All PLEXIGLAS® cut-offs generated during processing by the customer can also be reintegrated into a useful loop. To this end, we work with specialized disposal companies to give customers access to a well-regulated recycling loop for PLEXIGLAS®.
End consumers can also dispose of PLEXIGLAS® easily: The material is not hazardous or special waste and can therefore be disposed of via supra-regional disposal businesses or as household waste. PLEXIGLAS® is then often burned for energy generation. Only water (H2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2) are produced during this so-called thermal utilization, provided that no additional fuel is used and under the right incineration conditions, which means no air pollutants or toxic fumes are produced.
Don’t waste, recycle!
Over 40 percent of Europe’s plastic waste was incinerated for energy generation in 2018. But both the plastics industry and the plastics strategy of the European Commission aim to increase the recycling rate of plastics.
Growing recycling volume
The amount of recycled plastics has doubled since 2006.
PLEXIGLAS® is recyclable
Recycling of protective films
Solid PLEXIGLAS® sheets generally have protective films on both sides. These mainly serve to protect the sheets against mechanical damage and dirt during transport and handling. Lamination films should also be collected mixed with as few other materials as possible. Where the films cannot be recycled, they can be used in household waste incineration plants for energy generation or deposited in household waste landfill sites without causing any harm.
Most plastics are shredded, melted down and then turned into other products of lower value, a process which is called downcycling. PLEXIGLAS® products, however, can be broken down into their original components using chemical recycling to create new sheets, tubes, rods, etc. – with virtually the same quality. Only suitable for a limited number of plastics, this process saves resources and avoids waste.