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Jiří Pác: Plastic development is at a crossroads

Jiří Pác has been working at Polymer Institute Brno for nearly thirty years. He started there in 1990, after graduating from a college of plastic technology, as a research worker in the materials research department. He later became the manager of this department and subsequently branch manager of the division under Unipetrol RPA.

Jiří Pác: Plastic development is at a crossroads
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What sorts of activities does the research center carry out?

At Polymer Institute Brno, we conduct both research activities and manufacture our own products. Research activities are mainly dedicated to matters such as polymer catalysts, UV and thermooxidative polymer stability, the development of new types of polyolefin and materials made on their basis.

We also focus on technical support for production units as well as support to manufacturing units, compounders (e.g. plastic processors who prepare plastic mixtures with, for example, fiberglass, talcum, fire retardants and others) and plastic processors. In terms of our own production, we mainly dedicate ourselves to the development and distribution of plastic additive concentrates, such as UV stabilizers, antistatic materials, fire retardants, colorants, and many others, which represent an integral component in the production of plastic materials that we encounter on a daily basis. We may not even be aware that, almost all plastic products, in addition to the base plastic material, contain various other substances- additives which fundamentally improve product properties. For example, the already mentioned UV stabilizers exponentially increase the lifespan of outdoor products, fire retardants increase the safety of buildings and electric technologies, not to mention colorants, without which plastic products are nearly impossible to imagine.

Polymer Institute Brno nontraditionally combines research, respectively development activities, with its own product manufacturing. In your opinion, what are the advantages of this approach?

The incorporation of research and manufacturing in one company has several fundamental advantages. The first of which is the sharing of highly challenging financial and employee costs for both types of activities. The second is a procurement of contacts and access to customers by providing a well-established supply of research services. It’s almost surprising how great of a way this is to gain customer trust. In this way, PIB becomes not just one in a long line of product suppliers, but a partner, of whom customers know that they possess essential technical and intellectual know-how and can provide them with valuable assistance whenever they need it. Figuratively speaking, this combination can be compared to a supermarket, a place where we shop primarily because we know that we will find everything we need in one place.

What is currently being worked on at PIB? Are there any significant projects, investments or changes happening?

The most significant area that PIB is currently focused on is the preparation of background research for the polyethylene unit PE3 that is in the process of being built. Because of the differences between the new and the original technologies, that are PE1 and PE2, it was necessary to not only construct new laboratory polymerization reactors, including a polymerization process directive, but also supply our laboratory headquarters with the analytical equipment required for the study of polymer structure and their physico-mechanical properties as well as technologies for their further processing. Aside from substantial investment into laboratory equipment, we have also made updates to additive concentrate manufacturing equipment. Over the course of several years, we have acquired two new compounding machines which have increased PIB’s manufacturing capacity from the original approx. 1500 tons per year to the current approx. 2500 tons a year. Another project to sizably increase concentrate manufacturing capacity is currently in negotiations.

Can you describe what sorts of trends you are encountering in plastic manufacture? What direction is their production headed in, and is it necessary for PIB to react to these trends in any way?

The direction of plastic development is currently at a bit of a crossroads. This is due to new legislative efforts which are heading in the direction of “circular economy”. Simply speaking, circular economy represents a method of using raw materials, in our case plastics, in a manner that is sustainable in the long term. The purpose of this effort is to minimize the consumption of raw materials, and in that way, maximize the length of time these raw materials will be accessible to human kind. Our research strategy needs to adjust to this effort as well, so that our research will aid Unipetrol in staying relevant on the plastic materials market in the long-term. Environmentally motivated efforts have gone through many milestones, originating in the effort to get rid of plastics by initiating their breakdown with the help of prodegradant additives or compost-ability. Both of these directions turned out to be erroneous, for it is precisely the degradation of plastic materials that leads to the creation of micro particles and is thus one of the sources of the much medialized contamination of oceans and ocean creatures. Similarly, compostable plastics do not carry any fundamentally beneficial value. These are ways that facilitate getting rid of plastic materials, but do so without providing the option for further utilization.

Which direction of plastic development is considered to be the right one?

Currently, recycling of the largest amount of plastic materials on the market as possible is somewhat of a “holy grail”. This is a very ambitious goal and at least three basic parameters must be met in order to achieve it. The first of these is the minimization of the amount of plastic material on the market, respectively at least in separate industry segments in such a way, so that they aren’t mixed and are constructed to be truly recyclable and not represent a technological brain teaser when trying to separate their individual materials. The second prerequisite is the successful collection, removal and separation of plastic materials. To a certain degree, that’s being accomplished already. The last and most difficult parameter is the subsequent utilization of successfully collected and separated plastics. Unfortunately, that’s the biggest weakness of the entire effort toward achieving “circular economy” and at the same time represents another challenge for research to focus on in the future.

What cause the utilization of recycled materials to be the biggest challenge?

Legislation requirements for food wrapping materials, building materials, automobile parts and so on is getting stricter each year and plastic manufacturers are meeting them with great effort and financial expenditure. That, however, is a situation that only concerns primary newly made plastic materials. Once recyclable material with undefined parameters enters this equation, its usage within the aforementioned applications is eliminated. There are, of course, a lot of applications, such as simple wrapping foils, panels, technical wrappers, crates and others, which enable a partial addition, or even a full usage of recycled plastics. However, this segment of the market will soon be so saturated that new applications will have to be created artificially rather than truly being necessary. Until recently, China was a relatively inexhaustible market for plastic material waste, but due to legislative changes concerning garbage disposal in this country, that emphasize an ecological approach to manufacturing, this market has closed off significantly. Because of this, we will soon find ourselves in a situation that we have nowhere to utilize plastic materials. The situation could be improved to a certain degree if legislative measures regarding manufacturing quality were loosened, but that’s more wishful thinking than a realistic possibility. That’s why it’s important to search for methods of recycling plastic that will lead to de-polymerization back into usable monomers, or at least improve the characteristics of recyclable plastics so as to make multiple reuse viable.

Unipetrol recently introduced the new product Makroplus CC to its customers. This product originated out of cooperation between developers in Brno and Litvínov. Is such cooperation unique, or do developer teams within the group cooperate regularly?

This product came about as a result of collaborative development effort among the manufacturing department of electro-conductive carbon black Chezacarb, PIB, and the sales group Unipetrol Deutschland. These electro conductive materials are used for various applications, starting from permanently antistatic or electro- dissipative wrappers for electronics, going across foils, pipes, foams, flooring, all the way to cable industry applications. Concentrates expand the market of Chezacarb customers, because only a small portion of them is able to work with carbon black in its raw form. The main markets will be Germany and China, where Unipetrol has a good sales representation and excellent contact with customers. In connection with this, I can mention a research project investigating manufacturing and application possibilities of “green plastics,” that PIB is currently implementing in cooperation with the commerce department at Unipetrol.

Green plastics? Can you explain what that entails?

Green plastics are plastics made from “non-petroleum” raw materials. A series of plastic substances belongs in this group, but the most commercially interesting one of these is PLA (polylactide). It’s possible to prepare the monomer lactic acid, and out of that lactide, through fermentation, out of essentially any agricultural products or waste containing mono to polysaccharides, meaning even cellulose. The current consumption of PLA in Europe is around thousand ton units, but in connection with the “circular economy” model, we can expect demand within the next few years to increase exponentially. Aside from legislative requirements, the main reason for fast PLA consumption development will be the effort of multinational concerns to show off their “green strategy” by converting some of their manufacturing from petroleum plastic materials to, for example, PLA and thus gain a competitive advantage with their customers. This effort, however, will surely over time run into the problem that such an amount of agricultural production will not be available for fermentation and PLA, much like biofuels, will be in competition with food production. That’s why timely interception of the right moment of PLA consumption growth, because at this time we will also be talking about a relatively lucrative production.

And how is it with the development of the polymers polyethylene and polypropylene, which are an important commerce article for Unipetrol group?

Development directed at existing plastics such as polypropylene (PP) and polyethylene (PE) is aimed primarily at polymerization systems that enable manufacture of products such as, for example, PP Mosten by using phthalate-free catalysts intended for the production of food packaging, materials with minimalized organic substance emissions for automobile applications or, with decreased odor, for more complex food wrappers. Another thing that belongs here is development focused on making fibers for soft textiles, called soft touch- for hygienic applications such as diapers or improved PP block copolymers for thin-walled, yet resilient automobile bumpers. The trend in the automotive sector is decreasing vehicle mass, which also means lowering the mass of individual plastic parts. That’s achieved through elimination of previously employed stiffening ingredients such as talc and mica and using only pure polypropylenes. That, of course leads to the necessity of developing PP copolymers with increased firmness and resilience. Another very interesting domain are polypropylene foams. Recently, Unipetrol introduced a new type of this foam, Mosten MB812, to the market. In the case of new PE3 technology, the first phase will rely on manufacturing support of licensed types. Later on, it will be dependent on customer requirements and, concurrent with that, the development of new ones. The significance of PIB support is becoming that much larger since the licensor has reassessed its business strategy and will not be providing future support to Unipetrol in the further development of new types for PE3.

How do you personally see the future of plastics? Will we still be living in the “plastic age” or will their market share decrease? Will current plastics be replaced by new ones with improved characteristics?

Despite the current media campaign about the harmfulness of plastics for the environment, I see the future of plastic materials brightly. A certain share of plastics in the food wrapping division will certainly be taken over by paper and some completely unnecessary applications will certainly disappear. To a degree, which may slow down the growth of plastic consumption, but no material which can fully substitute plastic exist. More likely, what will happen will be the re-division of application domains among different types of plastics, out of which PP and PE will certainly come out on top, because they provide a unique combination of low price, excellent physico-mechanical properties and easy recyclability. Styrene plastics in wrapping, foam and technical applications and engineering plastics in electro- technology will most likely be diminished. We can also expect a decrease in the case of PVC for the cable industry. PP and PE will partially be in competition with “green plastics,” but these will never reach availability as a large-scale replacement, because their mass manufacture would come at the expense of food production. The danger for PP and PE sales lies more-so in recyclability, respectively in the repeated use of recycled materials, which will remove some instances of the use of primary PP and PE. To an extent, Unipetrol can confront this issue by engaging in the recycling process themselves and putting in the effort to offer cheaper versions of plastic materials on the basis of level types of PP and PE with a portion of recycled plastics.

In conclusion, one more personal question. How do you spend your free time? What are your interests?

That’s the toughest question, because I don’t have any strictly defined hobbies. I like to go for evening walks and occasionally I’ll read something.