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Plastic Avoidance Plastic Avoidance

Stemming the Flood of Plastic

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Frank Thoma has been corporate editor at ZF since 2011. With a degree in journalism, he has been planning, writing and editing articles for all of the company’s internal, external media.
Sustainable actions require local commitment. A project by ZF employees in Mexico shows how a consistently implemented idea obviates the need for environmentally harmful plastic film.

Barely noticed by the public during the coronavirus pandemic, the United Nations published a story on October 21, 2021 about the alarming assessment of its UN Environment Programme (UNEP): The volume of plastic waste floating in oceans and other bodies of water has been growing sharply for years. Currently, an estimated eleven million tons of plastic enter the oceans every year – carrying all the known hazards for humans, animals and the environment. According to UNEP, this figure could more than double by 2030 if no countermeasures are taken.
85 %
of all ocean waste is now plastic waste!
Source: United Nations

This incredibly large quantity does not include plastic waste products which end up in places such as landfills. As UNEP states, recycling is not a solution, given the scale of the plastic problem. What's needed instead is a transformation across the whole value chain. This means an immediate, massive reduction in the production and use of plastics. Dr. Michael Karrer, Head of Sustainability & EHS at ZF, said: "Avoiding waste is a priority in the circular economy, which is of central importance in our sustainable actions. We are therefore delighted with any contribution that prevents the generation of plastic waste."

Wanted: Replacement for single-use plastic film

Wanted: Replacement for single-use plastic film

Against the backdrop of this global development, some colleagues in Chihuahua, Mexico, asked themselves what they could do to not further increase this flood of plastic waste. A logistics center supplies three ZF plants in the city with material for the production of steering system and airbag modules. Every hour trucks leave the logistics center, transporting around 60 pallets.
As is customary worldwide, each pallet used to be generously wrapped in plastic film to protect the contents of the stacked plastic and cardboard boxes from falling out or getting dirty. After a short journey to the destination, the plastic film would first be thrown into waste containers, only to later end up in a landfill. Each year, the weight of the plastic film in Chihuahua alone amounted to almost 30 tons.

Invented: Reusable transport sleeves made by ZF

Invented: Reusable transport sleeves made by ZF

A team of employees decided that enough was enough and sought a replacement for the environmentally harmful single-use packaging. The objective was to come up with a reusable packaging system. In phase one, the team discussed the type, size, material and processing of the desired reusable transport packaging. Then, a prototype phase followed, in which the logistics specialists experimented with different materials and cuts. In order to save resources, they decided to make stable polyamide covers for the airbag products. The production of reusable transport covers utilizes 3,500 square meters of fabric leftovers.
The reusable protective covers were gradually introduced in the three plants from September 2020 to March 2021. Since then, they have been used nonstop. Meanwhile, the Mexican tinkerers have been sharing their experience in Chihuahua with colleagues in Germany and Poland. A test is currently taking place at the ZF plant in Mesa, Arizona, which also serves as a supplier for Chihuahua. "The initiative from Chihuahua is an impressive show of how sustainable projects can be used in practice – locally and pragmatically. The approach can also be transferred very well to other locations worldwide," says Mr. Karrer, ZF's Head of Sustainability.
"The initiative from Chihuahua is an impressive show of how sustainable projects can be used in practice – locally and pragmatically."
Dr. Michael Karrer, Head of Sustainability & EHS at ZF

Here is a short video that describes the idea and shows the implementation on site: