Unipetrol | Fuelling Innovations | Articles

Polyolefin – the surprisingly conscious plastic

Media campaigns focused on plastic waste pollution tempt us to think of all plastics as harmful materials that only destroy our environment and jeopardize our health. However, although current recycling methods and waste treatment processes still have a few steps to perfection, the contributions and environmental benefits of certain plastics are undeniable. One such plastic is polyolefin.

Polyolefin – the surprisingly conscious plastic

What is polyolefin?

It is a thermoplastic that is used particularly in the manufacture of injection moulded products, such as crates, plastic bottle caps or children's toys. Another process - blow moulding – uses polyolefin to produce cisterns and containers.  

Polyolefin is also suitable for the production of foils for plastic bags or food packaging. It is also used for water pipes, cable protectors and insulation boards. This multi-purpose material accompanies us at every turn and is surprisingly environmentally friendly.

Why environmentally friendly?

For several reasons. Polyolefin production does not produce any toxic fumes, which is a benefit for the atmosphere. Due to their characteristic strength, polyolefin products have a long service life while being lightweight. If we use them as a substitute for products made from traditional materials such as metal or glass, we reduce product mass.  That reduces energy costs both during production and transport and thus decreases the overall burden on our environment.

Thanks to a study by the Denkstatt agency, we can even quantify these costs in numbers. The study states that total replacement of plastics in Europe would increase power consumption by up to 57%. In addition, it would also increase emissions of greenhouse gases, by up to 61% according to the study. Since polyolefin is used frequently in the production of food packaging, we must also include its contribution to preserving food freshness in the overall equation. According to the aforementioned study, the replacement of plastic food packaging would increase the amount of wasted food by 30% due to low shelf life.

Another study from 2014, conducted by Trucost for the American Chemical Association, calculated the global environmental costs of applied plastics versus alternative materials. The results of this study showed the environmental costs of plastics to be 3.8 times lower than the cost of materials that could replace them. The cost calculated by this study included feedstock and energy costs, both for the manufacture of products and for their preparation and reuse after end of their service life and even ocean pollution.

Polyolefin pros and cons

Low production costs, chemical and thermal resistance, excellent electrical insulation properties, easy workability and health safety. These are all valued advantages of this useful plastic. Add to that the transparency of polyolefin membranes and the fact that they are waterproof and you have ideal food packaging to protect against dust and dirt and extend shelf life.

But no material is perfect. Thus, polyolefin also has its weaknesses. It is flammable, and softens and decreases in quality at higher temperatures, for example in contact with hot water. Thicker layers of this plastic are slightly cloudy and are therefore used only for non-transparent tanks and pipes. Articles made of polyolefin are also somewhat vulnerable to slight damage cause by abrasion.

When used in accordance with their intended use, the polyolefin products serve to absolute satisfaction.