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Protecting our planet: implementing sustainable plastic materials in the security industry

Amid rising concerns for the environment, there has been increased demand for sustainable practices across all industries. This has gone hand-in-hand with the introduction of new regulations and frameworks, such as the EU’s Sustainable Product Policy Initiative, which aims for ‘green’ products to become the norm for industry use. Initiatives like this are urging companies to prioritize the use of more sustainable materials, and making sustainability a priority for stakeholders.

While altering the security industry product pipeline doesn’t come without challenges, there are now a number of more sustainable alternatives for plastic materials. It’s important for the industry to consider what options are available today and how businesses can adapt their products accordingly.

Where the industry is today

Product design is evolving to meet sustainability demands. There are more and more sustainable materials to choose from compared to ten years ago, providing security companies with an opportunity to adjust their product pipeline for the better. A notable development is the emergence of bio-based plastics, which are either fully or partly made from biological resources. Alongside recycled plastics, these sustainable alternatives offer a wide range of green design opportunities to manufacturers.

While more sustainable options are becoming available, a lot of so-called virgin, fossil-based plastics – particularly polycarbonate-based materials – are still widely used in the security industry. Their long-lasting, resilient design has traditionally been an advantage, but this longevity also presents several challenges. Some plastics can contain hazardous substances which have a toxic effect on the environment. If disposed of via landfill, their long lifecycle means they will remain in the environment for a long time. Alternatively, these plastics might be diverted from landfills to waste-to-energy facilities where they are combusted to generate energy for homes and businesses, generating carbon emissions that harm the planet.

Switching to sustainable alternatives is imperative, yet some security companies remain concerned that more sustainable products may lack the same high quality or longevity as traditional plastics. These are core requirements for security products like network cameras, which need to be durable. While it’s true that sustainable materials were once used solely for short-term products, like packaging, innovations in recent years mean sustainable plastics have advanced hugely. There are now a growing number of more robust and long-lasting alternatives to virgin plastics, which are increasingly recognized as high-end materials to be used in surveillance products.

Ensuring high quality materials

The quality of sustainable materials must remain a core priority for manufacturers operating in the security sector – not only to meet customers’ expectations but also to comply with regulations. Manufacturers need to meet the most stringent regulation worldwide if they are to sell their products globally.

Any material used in product design requires extensive testing, whether that is testing outdoors to ensure products work correctly in adverse weather conditions, fail-safe tests to ensure they meet fire safety regulations, or electrical testing to ensure they don’t pose a risk to the end-user.

One challenge is that safety requirements may not be in line with sustainability requirements. Companies can’t jeopardize safety in favor of sustainability, but there is a limited pool of certified sustainable materials that meet safety regulations as well as less available data on these newer materials. As a result, testing is far more extensive for sustainable materials than traditional plastics: it’s core to ensuring they are safe to use and will not hinder the quality or lifetime of the end product.

By testing sustainable materials, manufacturers are able to develop their knowledge of the material and verify its long-term properties. When upgrading existing products or testing recycled materials, for instance, some sustainable materials have been found to be more effective and resilient than the virgin plastics used historically. In fact, it’s become clear that sustainable products can be just as good – if not better – than their plastic counterparts in terms of longevity.

Manufacturers must also look to the future when testing materials. If a product has a lifecycle of ten years or more, manufacturers cannot be certain whether the materials used to develop that product today won’t be restricted in the years to come. Manufacturers ought to stay one step ahead here, pre-emptively finding alternatives for both the materials deemed hazardous today, and the risky materials, such as brominated and chlorinated flame retardants, which are likely to be restricted in future. Phasing out substances in advance of legal requirements not only ensures readiness for compliance, but provides a competitive advantage.

Understanding the value chain

Manufacturers must conduct research into their supply chains to determine where materials have been produced, how they have been sourced and understand their wider social and environmental impact. This extends beyond asking ‘is this material sustainable?’; it brings a range of other factors, such as labor ethics, into question. Yet the traceability and transparency of supply isn’t always clear.

Sometimes a sustainable choice comes with a negative impact that must be considered. For instance, it can’t be assumed that any bio-based material is sustainable. What if the plants grown to create it are using up arable land and depriving the local population of food?

There is a lot to dig into to ensure security companies are making the most sustainable choice possible, while balancing it with developing a high quality, high performance end product. This balance is easier to achieve through strong collaboration with material providers, as they can share valuable insights into the properties of materials, as well as details of their source.

Switching to sustainable plastics

Despite their high quality and ethical value, switching to sustainable plastics can come at a financial cost given the higher raw material price. This is particularly true if working with a supplier to develop a bespoke material for a unique need or to pass a specific certification.

Of course, the proliferation of more sustainable materials on the market is inevitably making production more cost-efficient. This trend will continue as more manufacturers opt for recycled and bio-based materials over traditional plastics at the start of the product design process.

Manufacturers can also upgrade existing products in the market to make them more sustainable, though this comes with some challenges. Products are designed with particular materials in mind, and it isn’t always simple to adapt them for bio-based and more sustainable materials. It requires investing resources to make design changes and re-verify new materials to ensure they meet regulatory requirements and maintain the product’s high quality – meeting all the same customer demands (if not more) than the original product. However, there are newly developed methods for upgrading and producing high quality recycled materials to boost performance and reduce degradation, therefore maintaining the longevity and quality of existing products.

Beyond design, manufacturers must also consider the lifetime of the product and its end-of-life. There have been significant shifts in the plastics industry to meet increased demand for recycled and bio-based materials, thereby reducing some of the associated costs. While there is still room for improvement in the global recycling infrastructure, the industry is seeing continued progress.

A resilient, sustainable future

Innovation in the plastics industry has provided more sustainable options to choose from than ever before, many of which offer the same – if not greater – quality and longevity as their virgin plastic counterparts. When combined with significant advances in recycled options and the capability to re-design products around bio-based materials, there is a clear opportunity today for companies to make the switch to more sustainable plastic materials.

The move to a sustainable future doesn’t come without its challenges, and it may be some years to come before ‘green’ is seen as the norm. Yet forward-thinking manufacturers are already opting for sustainable materials that have a more limited impact on the environment while providing customers with high-quality, long-lasting, and resilient products.

Ausra Reinap, Senior Environmental Engineer, Environment and Supply Chain Sustainability at Axis Communications
Ausra Reinap, Senior Environmental Engineer, Environment and Supply Chain Sustainability at Axis Communications