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GE Unveils New "Carbon-Reducing" Recycled Plastics

GEplastic.jpg Alana Herro writes for Eye on Earth (e²), a service of World Watch Magazine in partnership with the blue moon fund. e² provides a unique perspective on current events, newly released studies, and important global trends.

At a July 27 event in Tokyo, GE Plastics unveiled two new plastic resins that it claims will significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions, post-consumer waste, and petroleum use. The company aims to use the resins, derived from used water bottles and other plastic waste streams, to produce new virgin-quality plastic materials. Initially slated for automotive applications, the resins may eventually be available for use in consumer electronics, office furniture, and wireless, electrical, and lawn care products.

Known as Valox iQ and Xenoy iQ, the resins are made with polymers of polybutylene terephthalate (PBT), derived from 85-percent post-consumer plastic waste. According to GE, their manufacture results in a carbon dioxide reduction of at least 1.7 kilograms per kilo of resin and saves as much as 8.5 barrels of crude oil for every ton of resin. The company estimates that if all PBT was replaced in 2005 with the new resins, this would have created an outlet for more than 562,000 tons per year of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) waste—the equivalent of 22.5 billion plastic bottles, or enough to circle the Earth 120 times if placed end-to-end.

The resins are being developed as part of GE’s “ecomagination” initiative, a business strategy established two years ago to help GE capture the growing environmental market. As Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of GE, explained at the initiative’s launch in 2004, “we are launching ecomagination not because it is trendy or moral but because it will accelerate our growth and make us more competitive.” GE expects ecomagination to earn $20 billion by 2010.

One possible drawback with the new resins is that GE has no plans to recycle any of the auto parts or other items made from the plastics at the end of their life cycles to close the recycling loop. Vikram Gopal, Crystalline Global Program Manager for GE Plastics, explains that no infrastructure currently exists for this purpose, and that the plentiful and growing supply of plastics from today’s existing recycling infrastructure makes recovering old auto parts less of a priority. However, notes Worldwatch Institute researcher Erik Assadourian, “until GE creates the infrastructure to recapture and recycle this new material as well, the long-term environmental benefits will be minor compared to the economic benefits.”

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