The future of plastics and the role of styrenics

The new polymer age has begun

Plastics have made our modern world what it is today. Industrial development during the second half of the 20th century was, to a great extent, built upon the innovations of the plastics industry. This led to large number of improvements for a wide range of products. Innovations in styrene-based plastics have had a significant impact on the plastics industry as a whole, setting standards for safety, sustainability and design.

On October 17, 2013, Styrolution, the global leader in styrenics, hosted experts from manufacturing, science and industry organizations to discuss the future of plastics and the role of styrenics.

The following is a summary of the most important insights extracted from the discussion:

Plastics have significantly increased our standard of living over the past decades

The panelists were all of the opinion that plastics have positively changed our lives and have elevated our standard of living. Without plastics, many innovations would simply not be possible. Thanks to plastics, inventions such as the airbag, have made driving much safer. The value of plastics for manufacturers was emphasized by Eckart Herrmann from Volkswagen who said: "From the Volkswagen point of view, plastics have revolutionized our cars."

Even at the molecular level, plastics' properties can be influenced so that the end-product possesses exactly those characteristics that are required. How this works was explained further by Professor Dr. Hans-Werner Schmidt from the University of Bayreuth: "Future challenges lie in creating molecules, which through self-organization are put together in a certain order and a specific mesoscopic structure to fulfill certain functions." With the help of styrenics, one can make practically anything added Norbert Niessner from INEOS Styrolution.

For Volkswagen, there were three core focus areas: safety, lightweight and aesthetics. During the panel discussion, it became clear in the example of the automotive industry, how styrenics serve the individual needs and expectations of consumers and bring in many respects added value.

Indeed, we find ourselves in the polymer age and it is far from being over.

The use of raw materials must be done sustainably

The panelists were of course aware that along with all the uses of plastic and styrenics that the aspect of safety cannot be ignored. Manufacturers leave no stone unturned to ensure products are increasingly safer for the environment in general but also for consumers. It is particularly important that the growing amount of plastic waste in the world's oceans be addressed. This point was emphasized by Patricia Vangheluwe from PlasticsEurope, who noted that plastic should not be disposed of like it is garbage since it is a very valuable material and should be handled with care.

Her hope is also that in all the discussions that we stress again and again the benefits plastics have to offer to people now and to future generations. Basically, one must always identify the optimal material for a product, regardless of which material that is in the end; it must be the best material in terms of sustainability.

A look to the future: functional plastics and 3D printing

It was especially important for the panelists to point out which opportunities polymers offer for the development of new products. Through changes at the molecular level, you can give plastics exactly those properties that are most important for the end-product. Beyond this, it is also key to link plastics with specific functions. According to Norbert Niessner, these could be, for example, self-cleaning surfaces or also "cool touch," which make plastic not only look like metal but feel like it as well.

Styrenics could one day make it possible to transform point lighting into flat-surface lighting. This is how a single LED bulb distributes light evenly across a computer screen. Volkswagen views ambient lighting as a big trend in the auto industry that will make it possible to adjust lighting in various areas of a car. INEOS Styrolution has also recognized the increasing need for lifestyle, ambience and design. Norbert Niessner is convinced that styrenics will contribute significantly in this regard across many industries.

According to Hans-Werner Schmidt, another major styrenics contribution is in 3D printing. This process has a very bright future in store and opens many new possibilities for both manufactures and consumers. It is especially interesting as 3D printing is comparatively affordable. Volkswagen's Eckart Herrmann says it also offers an opportunity to print prototypes. The production of these parts is currently very expensive and Eckart Herrmann sees a good opportunity to produce these prototypes cost-efficiently. The idea behind 3D printing was reinforced by Norbert Niessner: "Styrenics will play a major role by making high-end tech affordable to people throughout the world".

The future is plastics. It is now important to meet mega trends with the right materials and produce in a sustainable way.