Jason Middleton, Ray Products
Sustainability has become critical to medical businesses. Some implement sustainability to appeal to consumers. Others look to cut costs or align their business practices with their company mission. Whatever the motivation, 13% of company CEOs see sustainability as their top priority, while another 36% view it as a “top 3” priority.
Healthcare is no exception. Health facilities create 6,600 tons of waste per day and spend over $10 billion in annual energy costs. There is significant room for improvement, and many healthcare organizations are looking for more sustainable equipment and supplies.
What role does plastics manufacturing have in all of this? Quite a large one – at least, potentially. More than 300 million tons of plastic are manufactured every year, and this number is growing significantly. Globally, it’s estimated that less than 3% of that plastic is recycled.
Picking the right process
Planning for recyclability starts with the process you choose. Some processes, like thermoforming, are easily 100% recyclable. Other processes, like fiberglass or thermoset manufacturing processes such as RIM, are either non-recyclable or can only be downcycled into other materials.
Beyond sustainability, thermoforming is particularly popular in medical device manufacturing because its sweet spot is making high-quality, aesthetically pleasing parts in quantities from the low hundreds to the mid-thousands.
Easily recyclable processes include pressure forming, vacuum forming, injection molding and blow molding. Processes that are non-recyclable or impractical to recycle are RIM,
fiberglass and other thermoset processes.
Recycled materials options in thermoforming
The most sustainable plastic manufacturing process uses recycled materials and creates a recyclable product. Thermoforming can check both boxes.
On the materials side, thermoforming projects can be made from any combination of virgin and recycled materials. It helps to think about it in terms of a percentage. A project could use any percentage of recycled materials — from 0% all the way up to 100%.
An experienced thermoforming engineer can help you balance your performance, aesthetics and certification requirements with the availability of recycled materials.
Pressure forming and vacuum forming also offer a zero-waste manufacturing process. During the thermoforming process, after a part is formed and removed from the mold, the excess material is trimmed off. However, none of that material need end up in a landfill. Instead, the material can be collected, ground and sent back to the plastic suppliers for reprocessing.
Design considerations for thermoforming recyclability
When you’re planning a thermoforming project, what you do after your parts are thermoformed has a lot to do with their recyclability. Every piece of thermoformed plastic is, by definition, recyclable, but the process can be made more challenging by additions like bosses or other attachment hardware, painting, silk screening or other coatings.
These are not insurmountable obstacles, but they do require a more specialized and labor-intensive recycling procedure.
Designing for a sustainable end of life
It’s strange to think that the products we create today will someday be discarded, but nothing lasts forever. If you’re concerned about sustainability, you must consider and plan for the day your products are disposed of.
The future of sustainability in plastic manufacturing
To the average consumer, the words “sustainability” and “plastics” might seem out of place in the same sentence. However, the truth is that plastics manufacturing can play a critical role in creating sustainable products and product life cycles. As more and more companies embrace sustainability as a core objective and as more and more consumers demand sustainability, understanding and utilizing sustainable plastic manufacturing processes becomes more important than ever.
Jason Middleton is VP of sales and development at custom heavy gauge thermoforming manufacturer Ray Products (Ontario, Calif.). With more than 15 years of plastics manufacturing industry experience, Middleton plans and executes pressure forming and vacuum forming projects for clients in a wide range of industries.