A crisis in the environment? The impact of polymers and adhesives

David E Packham

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Polymers and composites in general, and surfaces, interfaces and adhesion in particular, are important and interesting areas of science with important technological applications. The polymer industry has shown broadly exponential growth since the middle of the last century and aspires to continued growth. Thus the science has contributed to the growth in prosperity and to the cognate problems, in particular environmental problems. There is a crisis which results from depletion of fossil fuels resources as raw materials and energy sources, and from pollution, especially greenhouse gas emissions.
In this paper some of the ways are discussed in which these sciences can contribute to reduction of the environmental impact of the associated industries. Much can be done modifying existing procedures for example by replacing the use of organic solvents by aqueous systems, change of blowing agents and pretreatment chemicals.
Interest in polymers from renewable resources such as starch, gelatine and natural rubber has intensified and new natural sources are being developed, some by use of fermentation techniques or genetic modification. Novel polymers and co-polymers from polysaccharides and based on polyhydroxyalkonates are being developed. There is much interest in "biorefineries", which can produce organic chemicals of significance to the polymer industry from a biomass feedstock.
The management of polymer wastes is a difficult area and recycling while technically feasible, may not be environmentally attractive. In addressing the environmental impact of polymers and composites it is essential to consider the environmental impact from "cradle to grave". Such lifecycle analysis may show that some renewable resources or recycling techniques have a greater environmental impact than the technologies which they aspire to replace.
The question remains as to whether these technical solutions, however successfully developed, will be adequate to resolve the environmental crisis described above. In theory, the Laws of Thermodynamics must cause reflection on the concept of indefinite growth within a finite system. In practice, the present global per caput energy usage coupled with projected population growth and global aspirations to a "North American" lifestyle must be compared with plausible estimates of material and energy reserves.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages12
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2012
EventPOLYCHAR 20, World Forum on Advanced Materials - Dubrovnik, Croatia
Duration: 26 Mar 201230 Mar 2012


ConferencePOLYCHAR 20, World Forum on Advanced Materials


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