Sustainability Impacts Overview: Plastics

February 3, 2021

The EPEAT ecolabel empowers purchasers to meet their organizational sustainability goals through their purchasing decisions. Products available through EPEAT include computers, monitors, copiers, mobile phones, televisions, and servers. EPEAT is just one of several sustainable purchasing resources freely available from the Global Electronics Council (GEC).

Why are Plastics a Sustainability Concern?

Many electronic products rely on plastic for their “housing” or “casing,” the thing that holds the product together, and impacts the look and feel of the device. Decisions on what plastic to use in a housing/casing are driven by considerations such as strength, scratch resistance, aesthetics, and weight, as well as functional demands such as reducing radio frequency interference (RFI) and ensuring flame retardancy.

Plastic has an increasingly recognized environmental cost. The extraction of fossil fuels necessary to make plastics is the source of risks, including air and water pollution, soil contamination, risk of spills, and health threats to workers. Once fossil fuels are extracted, the plastics production process can release dangerous toxins into the air and water, such as acetone, styrene, benzene, and volatile organic compounds. This process is also hazardous to plastic production workers, who face the risk of chemical spills, chemical fires, and exposure to toxic vapors. Once a plastic product has reached the end of its useful life, if it is not recycled, it can remain in the environment for more than 100 years, leaching microplastics and chemical additives that end up in our food, our water, and our bodies. Additionally, burning of the plastic can release highly toxic dioxins and furans, which are persistent organic pollutants that can accumulate in the environment and food chain.

Recycling of plastics is an excellent way to minimize the extraction and product impacts associated with plastics. But plastics used in electronics have a different polymer composition than recyclable items like soda bottles or milk jugs, which are made from single polymers. Plastics in cellphone cases, for example, are made from a more complex polymer blend, and there are fewer safe or efficient ways to recycle them. The industry has been working to find ways to recycle the abundant amount of mixed-plastic waste in electronics, so those plastics could be reused and removing them in a way that is environmentally safe and healthy.

Ecolabels such as EPEAT and the increasing adoption of Circularity are drivers for electronic product designs that improve the quality of plastics recycling, including separability and labeling of plastic parts, and the exclusion of chemicals in plastics such as phthalates, cadmium, lead, and halogenated flame retardants. These design improvements reduce potential exposure to toxins and ensure higher quality and more valuable recycled plastics.