Today’s manufacturing world is under pressure to offer affordable environmentally friendly products. They must pay close attention to the environmental effects of the process of making their products.
One of the most common materials used in manufacturing is plastics. And when manufacturers use them, they have to consider how they affect the Earth. As manufacturers are taking the planet into consideration, they are looking for alternatives to plastic. One of the top alternatives is polyurethane.
Plastic vs Polyurethane
Stated by a urethane manufacturer, plastic and polyurethane have many similar uses. Polyurethane is a form of plastic, but it can be configured into several forms and used in more applications.
What are Plastics?
Plastics are mostly synthetic materials. They are made of polymers that come from either natural production of oil, natural gas, or coal. Many are made of synthetics from those same natural resources. The polymers are long molecules that include long chains of carbon along with hydrogen, oxygen, sulfur, and nitrogen.
Most plastic ends up as thermoplastic. When we see images of plastic polluting the oceans, nearly all of it is thermoplastics, which can be heated, softened, and melted into shape as it cools. Often, the thermoplastics become everyday objects like:
- Car parts
- Beverage bottles
- Plastic food storage containers
- Shampoo bottles
- Plastic grocery bags
Fortunately, many thermoplastics can be reused, reprocessed, and recycled. But all too often they aren’t, and different forms of the plastic ends up in the oceans. If the products are recycled, there aren’t many companies that can actually follow through on turning the products into something that can be reused. And, the process of recycling plastic is so inefficient, that some commonly used products like plastic grocery bags are not even accepted at recycling centers in many communities.
What is Polyurethane?
Polyurethanes also come from natural resources like oil, natural gas, or coal. They are made by reacting a polyol with a catalyst or additive and diisocyanate or a polymeric isocyanate. Because several combinations can be used to make polyurethane, it is highly versatile. Their unique properties allow polyurethanes to be used in the same ways as plastics and other rubber compounds.
Polyurethane can be used in several forms. It can be manufactured to have different densities, rigidity, and flexibility. It can be in the form of a foam or as a solid piece. It also has the ability to stretch and return to a preset form. It is extremely resistant to wear, so products made of polyurethane have a long life – which adds to its environmentally-friendly qualities.
Polyurethane is also more durable than rubber. Polyurethane’s elasticity has higher wear resistance than rubber. The product also tolerates mechanical stress and can return to its preset shape more effectively than rubber. It lasts longer and is easier to maintain, too.
Which is Better for the Environment: Plastic or Polyurethane?
When manufacturers have to choose to use plastic or polyurethane, they have to consider the environmental benefits of both during the manufacturing process and after completion.
How Plastics Affect the Environment
Plastics are everywhere, and they have caused serious environmental damage. They litter beautiful natural locations like campgrounds, National Parks, and beaches. They clog street drains and fill municipal sewer systems. They are even piling up on Mount Everest, where climbers do not follow the rule of leaving no trace.
Plastics are one of the reasons for fracking. Ethane is needed to make plastic, and one way to get it is through fracking. To get to the fossil fuels needed to make plastic, energy has to be expended. So in reality, making plastic is not very environmentally friendly. Fracking damages the environment as it uses chemicals, large amounts of water, and sand at high pressure to break into underground rock formations. Not only it harms the earth, but it also creates air pollution through the methane it releases.
Manufacturing plastics does more than harm flora. It also harms animals. Plastics harm fish and sea life. They also harm any animals that are in heavily polluted areas, like forests and roadsides. Fish and animals end up eating plastics, and some of that ends up in human food, too.
Not all plastics are recyclable. Unfortunately, many of these plastics are also recycled. Too many plastics end up in landfills and these are never used again. Many plastics last forever in landfills, waterways, and other natural areas. And, even though there is so much plastic in the world, more of these are constantly made.
Environmental Impact of Polyurethane
Polyurethane can help fight climate change. The material used in several products works to preserve the environment. Polyurethane is an effective insulator that increases the energy efficiency of buildings. With top-notch polyurethane, buildings reduce their needs for heating and cooling, lowering their carbon footprint.
Polyurethanes are also used to create more energy-efficient vehicles. Polyurethane is a lightweight alternative to steel and other heavy materials, even traditional plastic. When cars are lighter, they use less fuel.
Manufacturers are working on extending the end-of-life phase of polyurethane. Manufacturers who use it are also looking for ways to create greater sustainability. Polyurethane is already being used in innovative ways. Polyurethane scrap is being used to cushion carpets as the underlay. Manufacturers are using a significant portion of recycled polyurethane for new products in the automotive industry.
Polyurethanes can be recycled back into their original form as a polyol. Consumers want to buy recycled products. They also want to know that the products they buy are safe to have in their homes. Polyurethanes do not contain chemicals that harm the endocrine or hormone systems. Polyurethane does not alter the pH levels of soil or water, too. Polyurethane does not have to be sent to a special facility to be recycled; it can be recycled at job sites and in factories.
In conclusion, polyurethane is more environmentally friendly when compared to plastic. While both products come from the same source – fossil fuels – they end up in different forms. Their chemical makeups give them different uses. Plastic has to undergo special processes to be recycled while recycling polyurethane is more efficient.