SustainabilityMarch 10, 2022

Creating a circular economy for plastics with virtual twins

Creating a circular economy for plastics is a vital step toward eliminating…
Avatar Florence Verzelen

The UN Environment Assembly last week endorsed a historic resolution to end plastic pollution. Effectively, it’s a Paris agreement for plastics that would move toward a circular economy. This ambitious resolution reflects the urgency with which we must act to end plastic waste.

Plastic production and pollution have increased exponentially since the middle of the 20th century. Production hit 348 million tons in 2017 and is projected to double by 2040. Pollution, meanwhile, is projected to triple by 2040, dumping an estimated 23-37 million metric tons of plastic waste into our oceans each year. It’s simply not sustainable.

In endorsing the resolution to end plastic pollution, the UN Environment Assembly has committed to forging an international legally binding agreement by 2024. Crucially, the resolution also addresses the full lifecycle of plastic. Some 40 years after the introduction of the recycling symbol, just 14% of plastic is recycled, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Creating a circular economy for plastics is a vital step toward eliminating pollution as it should drastically reduce both litter and virgin plastic production. The smart use of technology, including virtual twins and simulation, will be essential to achieve the bold but necessary objective of eliminating plastic pollution.

As I said in my remarks at Bloomberg Green during COP26, embracing digitalization is a necessary step in any serious path toward sustainability. AI, machine learning, IoT and virtual twins are very powerful tools for innovating, simulating and producing goods in a different, more sustainable manner.

Consider the virtual twin: A virtual twin experience begins with a scientifically accurate 3D model that represents the shape, dimensions and material properties of a physical product or system. You use this model to run simulations to predict and get feedback on how your product will behave when assembled, operated and even recycled. Virtual twins represent an untapped opportunity to simulate the entire value chain to make products circular and sustainable. You can do millions of simulations on virtual twins to test for materials, processes and more in the virtual world, so that you only advance to manufacturing with the most sustainable option.

Designing for the circular economy

Now, consider the implications of virtual twins for creating circularity of plastics within consumer packaged goods. Circularity of plastics can be reached by shifting toward more recyclable materials, by making more sustainable designs and by planning for end-of-life of product packaging.

Bioplastics like polyactic acid (PLA), which are compostable and recyclable, can be used to replace polymers derived from fossil fuels in the inner layer of product packaging. But PLA is semi-permeable to water, which limits its usages. What if you could simulate the impact of the addition of nanoclays to PLA to increase its efficacy?

And what if you could use the same virtual twin to test various bottle designs for structural integrity? Then, an eco-engineer, using life cycle assessment (LCA), could evaluate the environmental impact of choices about design and materials. Merging LCA with virtual twin technology makes such environmental assessments available from the early design ideation stages.

Now, what if you could take it a step further? Imagine being able to design for recyclability by taking end-of-life and disassembly factors into account at the beginning of the process. Imagine being able to design for circularity of plastics.

Dassault Systèmes solutions can make all of this possible. We’ve seen it happen.

Since 2006, Amcor’s lightweighting initiatives have reduced its polyethylene terephthalate (PET) resin consumption by more than 100 million pounds annually. Through simulation in design, they’ve been able to bring down the weight of typical hot-fill beverage bottles by 35-50 percent.

Now, recyclability and reusability are front and center in Amcor’s R&D strategy. The company has pledged to develop all of its packaging to be recyclable or reusable by 2025 and using even more materials made from renewable sources. Simulation is once again a valuable tool in that endeavor. As Amcor explores new polymer materials made from renewables, they’re able to plug various properties into the simulation to predict performance and cost parameters.

Part of the solution

Eliminating plastic pollution is urgent and ambitious. Getting there will require new regulations, innovations and behavior change … by individuals, corporations, NGOs and governments. That’s why creating a circular economy of plastics and embracing digital technologies will be essential to achieving this goal.

At Dassault Systèmes, our commitment to sustainability runs deep. In December 2020, we committed to the Science-Based Targets Initiative. Last May, we announced our Sustainability Compass. We run an annual LEAP for Sustainability initiative, an internal sustainability innovation challenge to inspire new, bold ideas. In 2021, one of our teams was able to develop a solid proof of concept for a solution that tackles the various challenges for packaging in the circular economy.

We are committed to being part of the solution for eliminating plastic pollution, because, as always, we want to insure that the technology solutions we provide are a net positive sustainable benefit to our customers, the consumers they serve and our planet.

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