Safety and sustainability
There are safety issues that are associated with the many industrial chemicals that exist. As well as safety, environmental impacts must be considered. A life cycle assessment (LCA) can be used to assess the impact.
A large number of industrial chemicals exist and have a range of uses. These uses include consumer products. The safety of these chemicals must be checked to identify any risks they may pose to human health and the environment.
Some chemicals used in synthetic materials are harmful in large doses but not in the concentrations used in the products. Other synthetic materials are harmful even in these small amounts.
Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are a class of chemicals that take a long time to break down and can harm people and wildlife. Because they take so long to break down they can be carried over large distances in air and water. POPs accumulate in the fatty tissues of animals, including humans. Exposure to POPs can lead to illness and in severe cases death.
Many countries have outlawed these chemicals, for example the UK has banned many of these chemicals already.
Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is a widely used plastic containing carbon, hydrogen and chlorine. It is produced by the process of polymerisation. Molecules of vinyl chloride monomers combine to make long chain molecules of polyvinyl chloride.
This synthetic polymer is relatively cheap and easy to mould. There are different types of PVC that are manufactured, serving a range of uses from underground pipes carrying water, gas and sewage to thinner films used in packaging.
Plasticisers are used to make a material like PVC softer and more flexible. They are small molecules that can dissolve into liquids that come into contact with them. The most common plasticisers used for PVC are phthalates.
Some argue that phthalates should be banned due to evidence linking them with health problems such as cancer. Others say that products containing phthalates have been used for over half a century and no known cases of harm has been documented due to the use of phthalates.
Some plasticisers have been banned by regulators in Europe and the USA.
A life cycle assessment, or LCA, can be used to assess the environmental impact of the manufacture and use of different materials and products.
Making a life cycle assessment
The articles that we use have three main life stages: manufacture, use and disposal. A life cycle assessment, or LCA, is a study of the stages in the life of a manufactured product.
Polymers have recycling symbols like this one for PVC to show what they are
The key features of a life cycle assessment include the following factors:
It is possible to make a product from different materials, for example. A window frame, for example can be made from wood or uPVC. The life cycle assessment for a product will depend on the material that it is made from.
It is possible to use the same material to make different products. Polythene can be used to make food wrap (cling film) or a bucket, for example. The life cycle assessment of different products will be different, even though they are made from the same material.
A life cycle assessment can be used to compare and evaluate the impact of:
It is possible to make a life cycle assessment of a material. The outcome of this life cycle assessment will depend on: