The personal care market is one of the fastest-growing industries worldwide, and is expected to reach $558 billion dollars globally by 2026. Several product categories—such as toothbrushes, razors, baby toys, and others, have a lifetime use of several weeks or months. I would like to share some sustainability considerations from my perspective with Trinseo, a materials solutions provider:
To create these products, materials ranging from silicone, glass, thermoset rubber, and plastics, among others, are commonly used. Compared to reactive products such as thermosets, thermoplastic elastomers (TPEs) have the intrinsic advantage of being able to be processed (heated and melted) infinitely. Some polymers in particular—like polystyrene [“PS”] or polymethylmethacrylate [“PMMA” or “acrylics”]—can be chemically recycled1 economically, which makes plastics ideal candidates for circular products.
Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.
Let’s take toothbrushes as an example: available in manual and electrically powered versions, these products are made from multiple materials2.
The device’s lifetime is limited by the filament’s wear; as leading dental associations recommend the replacement of toothbrushes every three months. Redesigning these devices with an interchangeable, clickable head would enable material consumption to be reduced when end-of-life is reached.
The proposed device adoption described above – applicable both for manual and electric toothbrushes – would increase the remaining body and handle’s lifetime use. Developing ways to more easily repair parts of the electric toothbrush would also allow us to create new business opportunities for local after-sales services.
Used parts made from TPEs enable easy recycling. Sorting and recycling can be implemented at grocery stores and supermarkets, such as TOMRA’s reverse vending machines3. Through complementary mechanical and chemical recycling schemes, such as our closed-loop mechanical recycling in the North Italian Footwear market, circularity of post-consumer waste streams can be created.Additionally, the material used to make the initial item can be made from partially bio-based feedstocks, reducing the dependency on petrol-based raw materials. Here, Trinseo has been offering bio-based soft-touch materials4 for many years and recently announced the first sustainable rigid Styrenics products based on recycled styrene monomer.
Demonstrated on a representative personal care device, one can see the diverse angles needed for the necessary shift from a resource-intense and linear business model towards a circular, resource-preserving one. It starts with re-designing devices with the focus of reducing material categories and enabling repair and replacement in a simple manner – and making recycling easier.
For consumer products made from TPEs, several initiatives have been implemented to create a collecting and recycling scheme, which is of great value for material providers like Trinseo. These sources can then be used to reenter the feeding streams. Additionally, bio-based feedstocks reduce carbon emissions by moving away from petrol-based raw materials, shifting businesses towards carbon-neutrality.
1 - Chemical or monomeric recycling is unzipping of polymer back into its monomeric building blocks – which then allows to re-built its polymeric structure without downgrading (same properties, all impurities detracted)
2 - E.g., manual toothbrush: rigid body – PP, handle – TPE, filaments – PA and filament anchors – metal.
3 - Reverse vending machines for collecting containers for recycling : TOMRA
4 - So-called thermoplastic elastomers (“TPEs”)