Canadian Plastics

New tool calculates benchmark data for sustainable production of plastics

Canadian Plastics   

Materials Research & Development

Developed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the U.S., the data measures how much energy is required and the amount of greenhouse gases emitted from the production of a variety of plastics.

An NREL researcher tests a sample of a new plastic formulation for its tensile properties. Photo Credit: Dennis Schroeder, NREL

Researchers developing renewable plastics and exploring new processes for plastics upcycling and recycling technologies will now be able to easily baseline their efforts to current manufacturing practices to understand if their efforts will save energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Benchmark data calculated and compiled at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), located in Golden, Colorado, provide a measurement, at the supply chain level, of how much energy is required and the amount of greenhouse gases emitted from the production of a variety of plastics in the U.S.

“Today, we employ a predominantly linear economy for many of the materials we use, including plastics,” Gregg Beckham, a senior research fellow at NREL, said in a Jan. 21 news release. “Many people and organizations around the world are looking at ways to make our materials economy circular.”

The estimates draw from a resource developed at NREL, the Materials Flows through Industry (MFI) tool, which tracks energy and material flows throughout the manufacturing supply chain to estimate energy requirements and greenhouse gas emissions.


“MFI is a publicly available tool that can be readily adapted for new technology options,” NREL’s Scott Nicholson said in the news release. “We’re constantly looking to add new production processes to the database. Researchers can request an MFI account and work with NREL to incorporate their own process data into the tool and calculate impacts for a proposed new supply chain.”

Using the MFI tool, if a proposed manufacturing method is estimated to require more energy or produce more greenhouse gases than the status quo process, Nicholson said “a comparison of the sources and types of impacts can help us figure out what aspects of a new process could be targeted for improvement.”

For context with respect to the broader industrial landscape, the polymers covered in this study represent approximately 95 per cent of global production, a combined 360 million metric tons annually. According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, plastics production accounted for about 11 per cent of all manufacturing energy consumption in the United States as of 2014. The U.S. is responsible for generating the largest share of waste plastics in the world, according to a newly published analysis in Science Advances.

This MFI tool analysis reflects only U.S. consumption of plastics at present, considering where it is used on its own or incorporated into another material. Polyester fibre, for example, is not counted when it is used overseas to make clothes that are then imported to the U.S. Future capabilities currently being developed by the MFI tool team will allow users to analyze global supply chains instead of just those based on U.S. manufacturing.

Two organizations within the Department of Energy – the Advanced Manufacturing Office and the Bioenergy Technologies Office – funded the research.

NREL is the U.S. Department of Energy’s primary national laboratory for renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development. NREL is operated for the Energy Department by the Alliance for Sustainable Energy LLC.

Source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory


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