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Meet the task force making your daily life more sustainable

BY READERS DIGEST

15th Feb 2023 Environment

Meet the task force making your daily life more sustainable

You may not have heard of them, but polymers in liquid formulations are everywhere. Meet the task force making them more sustainable

Polymers in liquid formulations (PLFs) sound like an abstract concept you might have strained to memorise for your chemistry GCSE, but we unknowingly interact with them every single day. From your shower gel to your moisturiser to the paint on your walls, PLFs are everywhere.

The bad news is, of the 36 million metric tonnes of PLFs that are made and used each year (that’s the equivalent of over 14,500 Olympic sized swimming pools), most of them end up as waste. The good news is the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) has assembled a crack team to make these products, and therefore our everyday lives, more sustainable.

What are PLFs?

A landscaping report by the RSC in 2021 identified PLFs as a high value sector that few people are aware of. It found that the world produces about 36 million tonnes of this material at a value of $125 billion. But before this report, there was no clearcut definition of PLFs. 

Dr Neil Clark, communications campaign manager at the RSC, worked closely on the report. “Before our report, PLFs weren’t really seen as a group,” he says. “They were just thousands of individual chemicals. We’ve essentially named them PLFs. We looked at them all together for the first time, and in the course of our research, common themes and areas emerged.”

Polymers in liquid formulation

PLFs are everywhere, from the paint on your walls to your shampoo

Creating a shared vocabulary is an important first step in any move towards sustainability. Professor Anju Massey-Brooker, a fellow of the RSC who sits on the task force, says, “We’ve standardised what a PLF is so that people are not comparing oranges and apples—we need scientific communities and businesses to be talking the same language to begin to work together towards a common standard of sustainability.”

As for what PLFs actually are, then, she breaks it down for us: “Polymers are natural or man-made materials that have repeating units of smaller chemicals. They can be the same repeating unit, or they could be two or three different units that come together and repeat in a pattern. The DNA in your body is a good example of a polymer, which is made of repeating units of genetic code that make a pattern unique for each person.” 

"Creating a shared vocabulary is an important first step in any move towards sustainability"

PLFs are a sub-group of polymers used as ingredients in products you encounter every day, but they are not necessarily the whole product itself. These are polymers that are a liquid, either when they are produced, when they’re in use or at the end of their life. 

This still sounds pretty abstract, right? What does that mean to us in real-world terms? Professor Massey-Brooker explains, “PLFs are pretty much everywhere. They’re in your shampoo to make your hair shiny, they’re in bathroom sealants, they make your paint stick to the wall, they’re in your engine oil as lubricants and they are used to clean drinking water.”

Why are they harmful to the environment?

Derived from fossil fuels

PLF markets currently rely on synthetic PLFs. These are reliant on fossil fuels. Bio-based PLFs do exist, but may not be available in quantities needed for commercial use. What’s more, green PLF products often come at a price premium, limiting their accessibility. 

Likely to end up as waste

Currently, the most likely destination at the end of PLFs’ lives is waste. Waste disposal systems are not well-equipped to deal with PLFs as liquid waste, meaning they enter the environment as sludge or in the case of dry paint or glues they can break down into microplastics.  

At the moment, the facilities for reusing and recycling PLFs are limited. Dr Clark points to the paint industry as a prime example of this. Fifty per cent of paint is made up of polymers, and 75 per cent of UK homes contain stored leftover paint. Only 2 per cent of leftover paint is reused or remanufactured. 

"People aren't empowered to recycle because the infrastructure often isn’t there"

“Fifty million tins of paint are just sitting in people’s garages and sheds up and down the UK,” Dr Clark says. “It’s just stashed there because people don't know what to do with it. They’re not empowered to recycle because the infrastructure often isn’t there.” 

Reusing and recycling paint could be a game changer. Paint360, the UK’s biggest paint remanufacturer, calculated that each litre of paint they reuse saves the same amount of carbon dioxide as is released when driving a transit van five miles.

There are options for saving your paint—Dr Clark points to Seagulls in Leeds, a social enterprise that reuses leftover paint, and Paint360. But the offerings are limited. “It's a postcode lottery,” he says. “Depending on where you live, your local household recycling centre might not accept paint at all, while some places ask you to add soil, sawdust, sand or cat litter to dry it out before disposal—which is a waste of a precious resource.” 

So what is the Sustainable Polymers in Liquid Formulation Task Force?

No, it’s not the latest team of Marvel superheroes. The task force is essentially a network of key industry players, including representatives from brands such as Crown Paints and Unilever. It includes academics, sector leaders and policy makers.

By convening this network, the task force can bring together research and innovation, translating fundamental research into industrial application. They are working to create a roadmap for policy, technology and infrastructure change that will transform the PLFs we come across in our daily lives. 

Professor Anju Massey-Brooker

Professor Anju Massey-Brooker is a fellow of the RSC and secretariat of the task force

“We developed mandates on circularity, biodegradability and sustainability,” Professor Massey-Brooker says. “We think if we address those three things, we can convert it all.” 

The sustainability solutions that the task force is pursuing are threefold. First, they aim to create a circular economy that prevents PLF materials entering landfill or the environment as waste. This involves scaling up take-back schemes and developing technology to create secondary raw materials from waste PLFs.

They are also working on the creation of bio-based PLFs. Sources for bio-based PLFs include the shells of shellfish, which produce a valuable polymer called chitosan, which can be used as a dietary supplement or to bring antimicrobial properties to wound care, and agricultural waste from wheat which can be turned into lignin which is used as an antioxidant in things like facemasks.

"The goal is to make sustainable PLFs the only option, so that the burden isn’t on consumers"

Another solution that the task force is pursuing is optimising waste management to reduce PLF waste generation. This means improving existing processes in sewage treatment and developing new technologies to effectively remove PLFs that are used as coatings such as epoxy resin or paints on substrate materials, thus improving the recyclability of materials like wood and plastic. It also means improving facilities for reusing and recycling unused materials. 

The ultimate goal is to make sustainable PLFs the only option, so that the burden isn’t on consumers to pay more for green products. “What we’re trying to do with this work is to make sustainable PLFs the only offering,” Professor Massey-Brooker says.

How can we support the work that they’re doing?

There are still ways that we can support the task force’s work in our day-to-day lives. 

Professor Massey-Brooker emphasises the importance of making mindful decisions. “We rely on PLFs for so many things that we do every day, but responsible consumption is definitely a way forward—ensuring you fill your washing machines when you run them and so on.” 

Dr Neil Clark

Dr Neil Clark is the communications campaign manager at the RSC

Dr Clark adds, “It’s also important to take advantage of the tools that do exist for reusing and recycling.” He returns to the paint industry: “For example, there’s Community RePaint, a scheme where you can donate half-used tins of paint and they’ll use them on local community centres, schools, things like that.”

Raising awareness is also important. Consumers can’t buy products that don’t exist, but companies are incentivised by consumers’ demands—that’s where the money is, after all. 

“When consumers ask for it, the industry gives it to them,” Professor Massey-Brooker asserts. “Raising awareness is important so that consumers can drive expectations. The breakthroughs in washing detergents that allowed us to turn down to 30° were due to new PLFs—and these were developed for people wanting to use less energy but still have the same performance.” 

What does the future look like for PLFs?

It all sounds rather complicated, but the task force is optimistic! Professor Massey-Brooker says the job is marked by a sense of excitement. “We wake up in the morning feeling energised, because we know we’re going to make such a big difference.”

Dr Clark adds, “It was amazing to see that after we released our report, we were getting emails from some of the biggest chemicals companies in the world asking, ‘How can we be part of this?’ Everyone genuinely cares. It’s refreshing. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be involved in something like this.”

You can find out more about the Task Force and its objectives here.

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