The story of the development of plastics goes back to the Stone Age, when Homo sapiens used birch tar from birchbark to produce tools. In the 19th century, increasing industrialization led to the development of several groundbreaking plastics, such as vulcanized rubber as well as celluloid, which was used as a see-through backing for photographic film. In 1950, BASF filed for a patent for its foam plastic Styropor®, which is still one of the most commonly installed insulation materials today. And in 1957 the “Age of Plastic” was ushered in with the start of large-scale production of polyethylene, which is mainly used in pipes, cable insulation and packaging. The key features of plastics are their technical properties which can be varied significantly according to their molecular composition or by the addition of additives: They can be malleable, elastic, hard or unbreakable.
Plastic-based insulation installed in the walls, floors and roofs of houses makes a major contribution to reducing energy consumption. After all, buildings are responsible for 40% of energy consumption and CO2 emissions in Europe. The plastic insulation used in a typical house can save as much energy in one year as was originally used to produce the plastic. The amount of plastic used in aircraft construction has grown considerably since the 1970s. For example, the structure of a Boeing 787 is made up of 50% plastic composite materials. This is mainly because of the weight savings resulting from the use of plastics, which also boast good technical properties and great stability. Likewise, plastics are becoming more and more popular in the automotive sector. A plastic-based component is only around half as heavy as a component from conventional metallic materials, so it helps save fuel.
Dr. Melanie Maas-Brunner, Head of BASF’s Performance Materials Europe Unit
The largest field of application for plastics, however, is packaging: These days, 50% of all European goods are packed in plastic. Nevertheless, plastics make up just 17% of all packaging waste. And one major advantage of plastics is the avoidance of food waste: Each year, 1.3 billion tons of food go to waste, equivalent to one-third of all food produced for human consumption. When packed in plastic, food remains fresh for much longer. For example, that way a piece of Parmesan cheese can remain fresh for 50 days rather than 20 days. At the same time, because it weighs less than conventional materials like glass and metal, plastic packaging saves fuel and CO2.
Plastic is therefore much too valuable to end up in landfill. The best option for used plastics is to find a new application to reuse them. When this is not a sustainable option, plastics can be used as a source of energy. In terms of energy recovery, plastic has the same calorific value as the crude oil from which it was once made so it can be thought of in this context as “solid crude”. For this reason, BASF and companies in the European plastics industry support a landfill ban for plastics from the year 2025 on.
Dr. Melanie Maas-Brunner has been head of the unit Performance Materials Europe at BASF since 2014. After receiving her doctorate in chemistry, she joined BASF as a researcher in process development in 1997. She was later responsible for global product strategy for dispersions and paper chemicals. From 2008 until 2012, she worked for BASF in Asia, where her roles included head of the business unit Polyurethanes Asia Pacific. Maas-Brunner studied and received her doctorate in technical chemistry at RWTH Aachen University in Germany and the University of Ottawa, Canada.