Polymers: The Environment and Sustainable Development / Edition 1

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"…an accessible treatment of this crucial area…" (Materials World, May 2003)   

In light of new regulations in the EU, America, and Japan, polymer producers have been forced to recycle. This book provides discussion on the impact of reusing polymers such as plastic and rubber on the environment.

  • Timely information on the environmental impact of polymer recycling
  • Each chapter contains relevant sample questions and answers
  • Contains chapters on the economics and legislation of recycling, and on LCA
  • Discusses the advantages and disadvantages of polymer recycling

Essential reading for students, as well as an invaluable reference guide for technologists and industrialists, in the vast arena of environmental and polymer sciences.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“This book is a very useful and up-to-date account of the role of polymers in modern society, considering relevant implications of their use, production and disposal throughout their life cycle. The book is clear and well organized following a logical evolution according to the life cycle of polymers. The remarkable characteristic of this book is that it is almost written as a tale, concise and precise, without lacking detail and providing reliable scientific data.” (International Journal of Environmental Studies, 10 January 2011)

"...this book provides a study-aid, yet also a comprehensive and current reference tool." (Rapra Abstracts)

"...an accessible treatment of this crucial area..." (Materials World, May 2003)

"...Comprising eight very comprehensible chapters..." (Chemistry & Industry, 16 June 2003)

"...Strikingly designed and conceived..." (Industry & Environment, Jan-March 2003)

"...for any reader wishing a broad introduction to this topic...recommended..." (Choice, September 2003)

"...could be viewed as a 'life-guide' to polymeric materials..." (Polymer International, Vol 53(2), Feb 2004)

"...an excellent textbook. All universities and colleges should have a copy..." (Materials World, 11 November 2003)

"...clearly illustrates the case...an invaluable constant reminder...an invaluable read for those wishing to make a difference..." (Environment International, Vol 29, 2004)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780471877400
  • Publisher: Wiley
  • Publication date: 3/28/2003
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 234
  • Product dimensions: 7.64 (w) x 9.92 (h) x 0.73 (d)

Read an Excerpt


The Environment and Sustainable Development
By Adisa Azapagic Alan Emsley Ian Hamerton

John Wiley & Sons

ISBN: 0-471-87741-7

Chapter One

Pandora (DG Rossetti, 1871). In Greek mythology, Pandora was the first woman, fashioned from clay by Hephaestus at Zeus' command. Pandorawas made a gift of a box, containing all the ills and diseases, by Zeus to present to her future husband and thus destroy Prometheus' creation of man. Sadly, the box was opened and the ills and diseases unleashed into the world leaving only hope lingering at the bottom of the box, to console mankind - a fitting start to our examination of the environmental impacts of polymers and the ultimate hope of achieving sustainable development.

the environment and sustainable development: an integrated strategy for polymers

1.1 Introduction to Sustainable Development

1.2 Sustainable Development Issues

1.3 Polymers: An Issue for Sustainability

1.4 Integrated Resource and Waste Management

1.5 Resource and Waste Management Policies for Polymers

1.6 The Book Structure and 'Life Guide'

1.7 References and Further Reading

1.8 Revision Exercises


'The existing pattern of resource use will lead to a collapse of the world system within the next century'. These were the words that hit the headlines when the world was shaken by the first oil crisis in 1973. This viewpoint, advocated in The Limits to Growth, dominated thinking throughout the 1970s and much of the 1980s and led to a wide acceptance of the depletion of resources as a central environmental, economic and political issue. It was based on the premise that natural resources, particularly oil, were about to run out. This pessimistic prediction has, however, proved to be false and the collapse of oil prices in 1986 marked the end of 'the era of resource scarcity'. New concerns over the future of the global environment then started to emerge.

One of these was the keen sense of human vulnerability to environmental changes. It soon became apparent that a unifying approach to concerns over the environment, economic development and the quality of life was necessary if human (and other) life was to be sustained for an indefinite period in the future. This approach, which developed slowly from the early 1980s and is now widely accepted, is generally referred to as Sustainable Development.

The idea of sustainable development was first used in the World Conservation Strategy report by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, published in 1980. It was followed in 1983 by the Brandt Commission's Common Crisis which in effect was the forerunner of, and in many ways formed the basis to, the report Our Common Future, published in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development. This publication, also known as the Brundtland report, set the benchmark for all future discussions of sustainable development and gave the most commonly used, working definition of sustainable development as that which 'meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs'.

In essence, the Brundtland report called for policies which foster economic growth but also satisfy the needs of people and improve quality of life without depleting the environment. This vision of sustainable development required a different attitude to economic development, in which the quantity of growth is replaced by the quality of growth.

The Brundtland report prompted numerous actions at both national and international levels, which called on governments, local authorities, businesses and consumers to define and adopt strategies for sustainable development. One of the most notable of these activities, instigated as a direct consequence of the emergence of the concept of sustainable development, was the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992. The Summit was attended by 120 world leaders and representatives from over 150 countries and adopted a comprehensive action plan known as Agenda 21, for the pursuit of sustainable development.

In response to the Agenda, many governments and organisations started developing their own plans of action and setting out strategies for sustainable development. Countries such as Sweden, Canada, Germany and the UK have already started working towards their own sustainability targets and, more recently, the EU sustainable development strategy has also been adopted.


Sustainable development may be regarded as the progressive and balanced achievement of sustained economic development, improved social equity and environmental quality. This concept has both spatial and temporal dimensions as it must satisfy these three goals equally across the globe for both present and future generations. Although holistic in concept, sustainable development comprises three individual components (society, environment and economy) and the goals of sustainable development can only be achieved if all three components can be satisfied simultaneously (see Figure 1.1). For this to happen, a number of global and local problems need to be addressed.

One major issue is global inequity and widespread poverty: 20% (1.2 billion) of the world's population receives nearly 83% of total world income. There are significant links between poverty and the environmental quality and much of the environmental degradation we see in the developing world arises as a result of people seeking basic essentials of life: food, water, etc. On the other hand, environmental problems are a significant cause of poverty and generally hit the poor hardest, e.g. a quarter of all diseases are found in developing countries. One of the main causes of environmental degradation, however, is unsustainable development by the rich. The 'big seven', i.e. USA, Japan, Germany, Canada, France, Italy and the UK, make up less than 12% of the world's population, but consume between 55 and 65% of world resources. If the rest of the world continued to consume the energy resources as the UK does today, we would need eight and a half planets to sustain current global consumption in 2050 (see Figure 1.2). The patterns of consumption and distribution of resources cannot be sustained if, as currently predicted, the world population grows to 10 billion by the end of the 21st century.

Coupled with other global environmental problems such as climate change and loss of biodiversity, there are clear indications that we are now exceeding the 'carrying capacity' of the environment. This is exacerbated by local or regional issues, such as air pollution and generation of solid waste. For example, some 2.6 billion tonnes of industrial, agricultural and domestic waste is generated each year in Europe alone. The decreasing capacity of landfills and their recognised impact on the environment give waste management a high priority at the local and regional levels.

To enable the move towards sustainability on the practical level, it is first necessary to understand these causes of unsustainability, then to identify more sustainable options and finally to determine how they may be implemented. In doing so, it is paramount that problems and solutions are analysed by adopting more holistic, life cycle thinking. This requires a paradigm shift from the current, fractured view of the environment, with the emphasis on one stage of the life cycle (e.g. the production process), to a whole life cycle approach, which examines the consequences of human activities on the environment from 'cradle' (extraction of resources) to 'grave' (disposal of waste).

In this book, we adopt such an approach in an attempt to examine the options and contribute towards the practice of sustainable development by addressing two important areas: resource use and waste management. We concentrate on polymeric materials and products, ubiquitous in our everyday life, to try and understand what drives and limits their production, use, re-use and recycling. We will consider a wide range of polymers, but will mainly concentrate on plastic materials, i.e. thermoplastics and thermosets, because they constitute the majority of the market. The conceptual approach adopted in the book is illustrated in Figure 1.3, which shows a 'life guide' for polymers with a number of different lives (or cascades of uses) and the associated life cycle stages. The guide through the chapters is also shown in the figure. We particularly concentrate on post-consumer waste management and examine the influencing technical, legislative, environmental, economic and social factors with the aim of identifying more sustainable options for polymer re-use and recycling.

Before looking into these issues in detail in the chapters that follow, we continue here to examine why polymers may be an issue for sustainable development.


The emergence of the concept of sustainable development has once again made fossil fuels an issue, because it is clear that reserves will run out on time scales relevant to sustainable development, although perhaps not as soon as was predicted in the 1970s. However, scarcity of resources is not the only issue to be considered, since burning fossil fuels affects climate change and it is now widely accepted that the millions of tonnes of C[O.sub.2] produced each year by burning fossil fuels are one of the main causes of global warming. We must therefore rethink our use of such fuels and general consumption patterns into a more sustainable model.

Most synthetic polymers are derived from fossil fuels, i.e. from naphtha or natural gas (see Figure 1.3), which puts them immediately into the environmental 'spotlight'. Consumption of fossil fuels and the associated environmental damage have made polymeric materials and products a focus of much attention by various environmental and government groups (see Figure 1.2). They have argued that polymers use material and energy resources, which are then lost when the polymers are disposed of, usually in landfill. The production process itself also results in a loss of 'feedstock' energy. For example, the production of 1 tonne of high density polyethylene (HPDE) loses 17.9 GJ of the 71.4 GJ of calorific value in the naphtha feedstock. Put another way, some 40% of the energy of the original crude oil is lost during processing.

However, the consumption of material and energy resources is not the only issue surrounding polymeric materials and products. Because of their widespread use and our 'linear' consumption patterns (in which materials and products are used only once and then discarded), polymers also contribute to an ever-increasing amount of solid waste. Since the 1930s, the total world production and consumption of polymers have risen rapidly to reach figures in excess of 100 million tonnes in 1995, about a quarter of which was produced in Europe. The types of material involved include plastic products (made from both thermoplastics and thermosets), fibres (e.g. textiles), elastomers, coatings and adhesives. In Western Europe around 45, mainly multinational companies, produce the basic polymer, which is sold to around 30 000 small- and medium-sized companies. These, in turn, convert the polymer into products for use in many sectors, for example, packaging, automotive parts and electronic equipment. Since 40% of plastics are used for packaging, it is not surprising that this product category has attracted most attention from policy makers and environmentalists. For example, the total plastics consumption in Western Europe in 1999 was 33.5 million tonnes or 84 kg of plastics per person, 19 million tonnes of which were available for collection as waste, with the rest remaining in use. Because packaging has a much shorter life than, for instance, plastics used in the construction or automotive industry, it reaches the waste stream much more quickly, which explains the fact that 70% (or 13 million of tonnes) of the total plastics waste that appeared in the same year was packaging.

On average, polymers account for 7-8% by weight and 20% by volume of municipal solid waste in Europe and elsewhere. Of that, still relatively little is recycled. For example, in Western Europe only 6 million tonnes or 30% of the total post-consumer waste were recycled in 1999, with the rest going to landfill. Similar trends are found in other parts of the world. Not only does this practice waste valuable resources, but it also has negative impacts on the environment. Very few polymers are biodegradable so that, once in a landfill, they will remain there occupying space for a long time; according to some estimates, up to 200 years for some polymers. However, some of the additives used to improve polymer properties can leach from a landfill to contaminate the water table; or in poorly managed landfills burning of plastic waste can generate toxic substances and cause air pollution.

Furthermore, as we all know, not all polymer waste reaches the landfill; much of the waste also remains abandoned and scattered in the streets of our cities and towns, as well as in the countryside, affecting the aesthetic aspects of life.

It is thus apparent that continuing with the same 'make-use-discard' practice is unsustainable because it leads to generation of waste, loss of resources (material and economic), environmental damage and also raises social concerns. Hence, we need to identify more sustainable practices for polymeric materials and products. The following section gives an overview of the options available, which are then considered in more detail later in the book.


The fact that only 4% of the world's oil reserves are used in the manufacture of polymers is sometimes used as an argument that they do not contribute much to the degradation of the environment, but 4%still represents a valuable resource. Furthermore there are other issues to consider, such as the generation of (long-lived) solid waste and pollution associated with polymeric materials and products. Hence addressing the problem of polymers in the environment remains an important goal.

The use of resources and management of waste in a more sustainable fashion cannot be achieved in any single way. However efficiently we use resources, the laws of thermodynamics teach us that some waste will always be generated. This, coupled with increasing consumption and the fact that it is difficult to persuade people to change their life styles, requires an integrated resource and waste management strategy. The waste management hierarchy shown in Figure 1.4 involves following the options of reduction, re-use, recycling, incineration and landfill.

The most desirable option in this hierarchy is reduction of resource use, which also leads to a reduction in the generation of waste.


Excerpted from Polymers by Adisa Azapagic Alan Emsley Ian Hamerton Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Ch. 1 The environment and sustainable development: an integrated strategy for polymers 1
Ch. 2 Polymers in everyday use: principles, properties and environmental 17
Ch. 3 Feeding the waste streams: sources of polymers in the environment 47
Ch. 4 Managing polymer waste: technologies for separation and recycling 79
Ch. 5 Drives and barriers for polymer recycling: social, legal and economic factors 101
Ch. 6 Design for the environment: the life cycle approach 125
Ch. 7 Environmental impacts of recycling 155
Ch. 8 Future directions: towards sustainable technology 173
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