The Limited Life Cycle Materials Used In Duct Tape
Sustainability currently focuses on the materials that products and their packaging are made of. But beyond an item’s main parts are the matter and substances that hold it together. One commonly overlooked area in terms of sustainability is adhesives. Although adhesives have an imperceptible presence as a component of any object, they should still be considered in the life cycle analyses that shed light on the materials, energy, and waste created in their production and use. This research paper will delve into a commonly used household and industrial adhesive, duct tape, and its material factors. A roll of duct tape is simply made with four main raw materials, but with only one being reusable, the product has a very limited life cycle of usage from production to waste.
Studying the breakdown of duct tape is significant not only because it is overlooked, but also because it is a product that is still constantly being produced. The use of duct tape has been around since the 1920s, with its use booming in the 40s for the military purposes of taping ammunition boxes and airplane ports (Schueller). Its use has expanded and is currently available commercially; in fact, roughly $100 million worth of duct tape is bought annually (Isidore, 2003). With a single, 1.88” 30-yard roll of duct tape retailing at $5.99 (Target), that would be an estimate of 17 million rolls at 30 yards each, or 501 million yards of adhesive. And so with so much duct tape being bought and sold, the question of what it is made of and what its raw materials provide implications on its environmental impact.
Duct tape is created with four main raw materials: the adhesive itself, scrim, polyethylene, and the roll of cardboard it is wrapped around (Mehltretter et. al, “Forensic” 3).
The adhesives are either rubber-based and are typically made/mixed on-site at the tape manufacturing plant, or synthetic, prepared on-site or purchased--a few of the synthetic adhesives are include styrene-isoprene-styrene, and acrylic (Mehltretter et. al). In the usage of duct tape, this is what gives duct tape its sticky backing, and what is applied to the surface that it is needed to bind to. Due to the resiliency of duct tape, it is used for home improvement and industrial purposes; however, the same resiliency of its adhesive bind makes its structure difficult to separate for the reuse or recycle of its individual parts.
Rubber, both natural and synthetic, are mostly derived from Asian and Pacific regions, according to the Rubber Statistical Bulletin (Statistical Summary). However, no exact measurements of how much of rubber or synthetic or from where the adhesives are sourced and used as materials for the production of duct tape.
Scrim, the fibers that provide the tape’s fabric screen structure, are also made of natural and synthetic raw materials; they are commonly made from cotton, polyester, or a blend of both. It creates the structure needed for the tape to have a backing with strength; a higher scrim count often mean higher quality and resilience for the tape (Mehltretter, et al.) According to a study of 82 different, common duct tape samples by Mehltretter, et. al, the scrim count per square inch in a roll of duct tape can vary greatly, from 17 warped yarns per 9 fill yarns, to 68 warped yarns per 44 fill yarns. This is due to the varying qualities of duct tape, depending on the brands and manufacturers they come from.
Although the amount of scrim may be difficult to calculate, the source of the raw materials can be traced to their location. According to the National Cotton Council of America, the world’s top producers of cotton are India, China, the United States, and Brazil, in order with India at the highest producer with twenty eight thousand, 480-pound bales of cotton produced in 2018 (“Rankings”). It is unknown for how much of this amount is accounted for in the production of duct tape.
Polyester, on the other hand, is made through an acid reaction with alcohol, using coal, air, water, and petroleum in the process, according to Encyclopedia.com (Krapp). According to Krapp, the process combines dimethyl terephthalate with ethylene glycol to form a monomer alcohol--this is then combined with terephthalic acid, and later on spun in ribbons to create its threads.
Another synthetic, polyethylene, makes up the tape’s plastic layer. It is recognizable as the thin flat, non-adhesive side of the tape, and as a synthetic material it gives duct tape its recognizable, slightly tensile quality. Polyethylene is a thermoplastic, which means that it can be heated and liquefied, effectively giving it a reusable quality in which it can be remolded and recycled (Rogers). However, it should be noted that this is a quality of polyethylene on its own, and does not account for the scrim and adhesives that a piece of duct tape would have attached. Although heating a strip of thermoplastic polyethylene might make it possible for recycling, heating a strip of duct tape wouldn’t produce the same results--in fact, it would likely burn the adhesives and the scrim in the process, without a system of filtering out those components as ashes, or somehow deconstructing a strip of duct tape first until it was purely a strip of polyethylene.
The component of duct tape that would most easily be separated from the other materials, however, is the cardboard tube that the duct tape wraps around. At the end of a roll’s usage, the tube is easily disconnected, and its general makeup, which is that of paper, is exposed and can be recycled as paper. The raw material that cardboard is derived from is paper from wood pulp. The pulp and paper industry persists around the world (“Japan”), but the top producers of wood products, in order, are Canada, the USA, and Sweden (Nag). It is unknown where the paper for duct tape cardboard rolls can be traced to and how much.
The complete sources of raw materials can be studied in some detail, but to find the very origins and specific, calculated amounts is an issue that this research paper could not examine. Throughout the research process, the detail in which the components of duct tape can be specified deeper and deeper, especially in the case of the synthetic parts, which definitely make up the polyethylene layer, parts of the adhesive layer, and in some cases, the scrim layer. In addition to the vastness of the sources of raw materials, the quality of duct tape varies as well. This is easily shown in the sample size collected in the study by Mehltretter, et. al, but easily observed in real life as well--there are many different kinds of duct tape, from thickness and strength, to brand and color. These variations would also reflect variations in the material make up of each roll, making it difficult to create a quantifiable study of the amounts and sources of the raw materials in one roll. And finally, duct tape is being produced presently, making the available selection of duct tape ever-changing. In both quality and quantity, the manufacturing of duct tape exists in flux with time and its market demand, as well as the source of whatever company it is produced from, and by extension, affected by the retailer or market its sales are influenced by.
In conclusion, the materials that duct tape is made of do not easily lend themselves to a sustainable life cycle of use. Because duct tape is such a common household item and an industrial item means of repair adhesive as well, efforts should be placed into finding more sustainable means of its material make up, especially since it is manufactured with the aim of being a single-use product. As durable as duct tape may be, it is still a manufactured product that is created from finite materials, if not non biodegradable synthetics that take place of any possible biodegradable parts. And since duct tape maintains a known, perpetual, cultural identity as a hefty all-purpose adhesive, research on its life cycle as an adhesive should shed a light on the manufacturing of more sustainable adhesives in the future, because its usage will not be going away anytime soon.
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Energy of Duct Tape
Duct tape has become a go-to solution for problems that arise from a variety of situations such as the maintenance of industrial machines to personal woodworking projects. Duct tape became a worldwide success due to both its simple creation and ease of use, proving to be versatile in almost any situation in any location. The prevalence of duct tape in modern society has established it as a staple in hardware shops and superstores throughout the United States but that same universality has required countless tons of material in the manufacturing and transportation of the product. The simplicity of having three main components is not paralleled in the amount of energy spent to gather, process, and transport the materials required to create the duct tape roll any consumer can purchase.
The widespread use of duct tape has created a need for consumers to understand the environmental impact of a product that has become a viable solution to most problems that may arise in daily life. Among the major brands of duct tape being sold, the company DuckTape holds the position of third in the greatest market value of duct tape sold as of 2016, selling $56.8 million worth of products (“Leading household tape brands”). Despite selling millions of dollars’ worth of product and thus hundreds of thousand if not millions of duct tape rolls, DuckTape sales amount to only a small portion of the total sales of duct tape in the world, with the entire market projected to be valued at over $3 billion as of 2017 and set to increase by roughly 5% over the course of the next 9 years (“Duct Tapes Market”). By the numbers, the market amounts to millions of square feet of duct tape, all set to be sold to consumers and used in nearly any task. Duct tape varies slightly in composition between companies and manufacturers, especially when accounting for the several varieties of duct tape and color combinations within types of tape itself, yet generally amounts to the following three components: a cotton mesh, a polyethylene coating, and an adhesive compound. These materials are gathered and used to create large cylinders of the assembled tape, with manufacturers creating tens of thousands of square feet of tape in one production cycle. Thus, each of the raw materials that comprise the majority each of the components—cotton, rubber, and polyethylene— are consumed by the metric ton.
None of the three materials are used solely to produce duct tape; however, due to a lack of information directly addressing duct tape production processes and transportation, conclusions must be drawn from overarching numbers provided for each material. Even then, the data gathered in this paper may not be indicative of the entirety of the industry, as information provided does not always account for every aspect of any industry.
Cotton is utilized as a structural component of duct tape, with a cotton weave or mesh used as the backbone of the duct tape itself. It provides the characteristic “tensile strength and allows the tape to be [torn] in both directions” that have become the major selling points of duct tape (Schueller). Although there are several production steps between the raw cotton material that is harvested and the cotton mesh that is used in duct tape, the harvesting of the raw cotton has the most precise statistics available as general knowledge. A case study for the Isfahan Province of Iran surveyed the energy consumption and economically analyzed the cotton production of the region, and gathered that cotton production within the region consumed a total of 52507.8 MJ ha-1, Megajoules per hectare, with nearly 78% of the total energy consumed coming from non-renewable energy sources and diesel fuel alone contributing nearly half of the total energy consumed with over 495 liters of diesel consumed for a single hectare of cotton (Beigi 6, 8). That hectare is set to produce roughly 4771 kg of cotton products, yet in Turkey a single hectare is slated to produce 3112.7 kg of cotton while consuming roughly 274.7 liters of diesel and 49736.9 MJ overall (Yilmaz 3, 5). This variation in cotton production consumption amounts to another layer of abstraction when attempting to gather accurate results in an attempt to pinpoint a distinct number for the amount of energy spent to produce the cotton mesh needed for duct tape, with an estimate of the energy required to create cotton mesh already having imprecision due to the composition of the mesh being a mix of cotton and other synthetic materials to provide the best material for use in adhesive tape.
The rubber utilized in creating duct tape creates a strong adhesive that binds quickly, once pressure is pressure applied, and binds securely for long term adhesion. The effectiveness of the pressure sensitive adhesive comes due to the rubber-based adhesive as compared to polymer-based solutions that do not bind as well, along with a greater amount of the adhesive to ensure a secure bond (Scheuller). To produce rubber as a raw material, the energy cost per kilogram of rubber varies depending on which form of rubber is being created, be it blocks, sheets, or a form of concentrated latex or synthetic rubber. As a general statistic on the energy required to harvest rubber, a project studying the rubber industry focused on production in Thailand— the country that accounted for the majority of the supply— and produced the figure of an average 2.76 MJ per kg when producing block rubber and a slightly higher 3.82 MJ per kg for sheet rubber (Energy Efficiency Index in Rubber Industry). But for each figure, the amount of energy spent was defined as the average of a logarithmic line of best fit, with plateaus at 2.2 MJ/kg and 1.3 MJ/kg for block rubber and sheet rubber respectively. Either way, the production of rubber in Thailand requires a large amount of energy with rubber bars requiring roughly 10% more electrical energy than heat energy while sheets requiring more than 80% of the total energy consumed as heat to dry and harden the final product. Even this is only for creating the base material that is then shipped out of the country, mainly by sea, to other factories that then process and transform the material into another desired form for further use. Additionally, by the Clean Air Act, manufacturers that utilize machines to coat materials with an adhesive material are required to “use the best demonstrated system of continuous emissions reduction, considering costs, non-air quality health, and' environmental and energy impacts”, further increasing the energy requirement when ensuring the minimum amount of pollutants released into the environment (“Pressure Sensitive Tape”). Again, this also accounts for the large inability to definitively state how much energy is spent generating the rubber for the adhesive portion of duct tape.
Plastics came about as a near universal method to create products that were light, versatile, mass producible, and cheap. The same can be said for the outer coating of duct tape, with a certain plastic, polyethylene, accounting for much of the blend of materials that provides duct tape with its waterproof yet pliable qualities. Several studies have been conducted regarding the energy requirements to produce polyethylene as a material for use, but with the intensity of the plastics industry, even with a singular type of plastic, variation is present for every production form. One study looking into the European Plastics Industry concludes that creating 1 kg of high-density polyethylene requires 76.71 MJ of energy with oil and gas providing over 90% of the total energy required (Boustead 12). In addition to many millions of joules, a wide variety of materials are also required to produce the polyethylene, with even more waste materials produced throughout the process and thus even more energy spent to minimize the amount of pollution that permeates throughout the atmosphere and surrounding environment. Again, this is under the assumption that only polyethylene is used to create the outer plastic coating present on duct tape. DuckTape brand products come in a wide variety of colors and designs, thus also requiring other materials to be added to the outer layer to produce the solid blue color or purple and pink dotted pattern on the outer layer of the product. Duct tape is generally available in a now-standardized silver color, yet it was initially colored green upon its creation and use in World War II but its color was later changed to silver due to the versatility and thought that it could be used to repair ducts and thus coloring it silver would it allow it to blend in with the metal duct structures more easily (Jim and Tim). Thus, there is a coloring process to the plastic coating, however the exact details regarding how much energy is spent adding the layer of color is not readily available.
Duct tape has influenced society from its invention in the second world war to the present day. As a new and improved solution to thin paper adhesives that was “1) waterproof, like a duck and 2) it was made with cotton duck fabric,” both requests of soldiers and the War Production Board in creating an effective and cost-efficient new product (Gurowitz). Since then, the processes to create duct tape have not changed at their core, with material improvements and advancements in general technology only furthering the usefulness and effectiveness of a product that requires vast amounts of energy to procure and process the necessary materials to mass produce enough duct tape to sustain the enormous global demand. That expansive energy requirement came to be available due to technologies providing cheap and readily available sources of energy, especially regarding the creation of plastics and transportation systems for items across the globe. Despite the increasing amount of energy available for use, duct tape poses a product that, while useful in almost any situation, requires far too much energy to produce a singular roll for consumers.
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Life Cycle Paper: The Wastes & Emissions of Duct Tape
Duct tape, an extremely strong adhesive tape that can also be torn easily, has become popular with everyday, common use. Characterized by its silvery gray color on one side and webbed mesh on the other, this type of tape was given its name through its historically broad use in fixing air ducts. This tape can also be used in multiple household repairs and various crafting possibilities, and is made up of a combination of cotton mesh, polyethylene coating, and adhesive compound. Different grades of the cotton mesh can be used for different levels of application, from common light strength needs to industrial purposes. Because of its sensitivity to surfaces of materials and its stickiness, duct tape is therefore categorized under “pressure-sensitive adhesives” and thus goes through similar manufacturing processes to other strong household packaging tapes in the industry. Throughout the cumulative process of producing duct tape, by limiting the wastes from machine emissions, truck fuel emissions, and packaging process emissions, the sustainability of its life cycle as a whole could be significantly improved.
The first steps of producing duct tape can be visualized in the process of the machines used to manufacture duct tape, and the wastes of these individual machines as they work to manufacture the distinct components of duct tape. According to Volume 6: Duct Tape of How Products Are Made series created by the online reference company Advameg, the individual materials that make up duct tape include cotton mesh, polyethylene coating, and adhesive compound. To combine these materials together to create duct tape, duct tape processing is broken down into adhesive compounding, adhesive application, respooling the duct tape, and finally packaging (Advameg). During the entire process, because machines require energy and a source of fuel to operate, naturally each machine would emit gas emissions as it passes through compounding and spooling. One of the primary steps, the adhesive compounding of the duct tape, is done by a traditional Banbury-type mixer, which is a standard rubber or adhesive compounding mixing and melting machine. This type of machine doing work would emit certain wastes, such as fugitive chemicals or debris from the loading of the compound into mixers or onto later spooling machines, according to the descriptive lists given by Pollution Prevention Opportunity Assessments: A Practical Guide, written by By Marcus J. Healey, Daniel Watts. These contaminants from compounding the adhesive and spooling the adhesive into the mesh can possibly be released into both the air and into wastewater that flows from the facility (Healey and Watts). By automating and consolidating these steps, sustainability can be focused on and improved in this level of processing. Citing again from Volume 6 of How Products Are Made, the writers of Advameg declare that “in the packaging process, there is variation in its emission levels: “Depending on the manufacturer, the steps described above can be combined through automation into fewer steps. For example, Permacell [compounding company] uses a self-contained apparatus which mixes, heats, and fastens the adhesive onto the backing. This method allows the glue to be prepared without pollution-causing solvents” (Advameg). Thus by combining machine processes together, the combined emissions from the machines which put together duct tape could be limited and thus decreased their impact on the earth.
The comprehensive process of producing duct tape also includes the aspect of transportation of raw materials from their sources to compounding and spooling factories, from factory-to-factory for in between processes, and finally, packaging or distribution centers. Depending on the manufacturer, duct tape transportation from its source to its primary facility is found in the trucks and other transportation vehicles that carry the materials needed for production. These transportation processes also involve waste and emissions due to the greenhouse gases that these vehicles produce as a byproduct of the types of fuels they use to do work. According to online magazine ScienceDirect featured journal Atmospheric Environment, the issue “Greenhouse gas emissions from heavy-duty natural gas, hybrid, and conventional diesel on-road trucks during freight transport” explains the differences in between each type of trucks and their individual emission capabilities for transporting materials such as those for duct tape. Cited from this article, the chemicals that are released to the air consist of: “Carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O) measured from trucks” (Quiros et al).These greenhouse gases in the same article were also measured to vary in levels depending on the type of fuel that the transport vehicles used. The different types of vehicles that could potentially emit gases were “measured on-road including diesel, hybrid diesel, and natural gas” (Quiros et al). CO2, methane, and other gases in truck fuel are emitted into the air, and to reduce this emission, alternative methods of clean air vehicles could be used. Proven by this article, the clean air vehicles showed significantly less impact on the air when the vehicles transported the materials from one facility to another. By altering these transportation steps between manufacturing facilities of duct tape, and converting more vehicles to use clean-air fuels, the cost on the environment to create duct tape could be improved in terms of sustainability.
The duct tape life cycle can also analyzed in terms of its emissions by viewing its waste factor in packaging and distribution processes as well as its individual end material waste. If duct tape is separated into its individual components, recycling each material involved if possible, then the end potential waste product has a greater chance of being recycled and thus limiting waste production in each of its steps. The packaging process before distribution of duct tape products can also be observed to improve sustainability. More specific to packaging products are the guidelines provided by the Institute of Packaging Professionals (IOPP), the Coalition of Northeastern Governors (CONEG), and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), summarized in an online reference by the PSTC (Pressure Sensitive Tape Council). This specific article explains the environmental costs in a list format in terms of packaging materials in facilities: “To sum up briefly they suggest the following in order of preference: No packaging; Minimal packaging; Consumable, returnable, or resealable packaging; and Recyclable packaging or recycled material packaging” (Jensen). By breaking down the packaging elements this way, limiting the packaging processes in the final steps of producing and distributing duct tape can limit the waste of excess packaging material, its chemical emissions, and possible pollutants from the transportation processes. Furthermore, one of the raw materials that make up duct tape is polyethylene, in this case HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene) can possibly be recycled to limit this form of waste in the end result, because it is a form of plastic that could impact the environment. HDPE is utilized in many strong industrial tapes other than duct tape, for its high resistance to pressure and heat, but because of these capabilities, it makes the polyethylene material difficult to decompose naturally and is not considered biodegradable, so another method must be implemented to solve this problem of end product waste (Thomas). According to AZO Cleantech, a leading publication site for the clean energy community, in their online published article “Recycling of High-Density Polyethylene” writer G.P. Thomas emphasizes that “recycling HDPE has many benefits. For example, it is more cost efficient to produce a product from recycled HDPE than it is to manufacture ‘virgin’ plastic (Thomas). Therefore, HDPE is not only more environmentally friendly to be used in its recycled form, but it is also more cost-effective and provides a sustainable alternative in this aspect. The article further states that HDPE is one of the most recyclable plastic polymers, and an infrastructure to facilitate this processes has already been established at various facilities across the world. Thus, by implementing this method of recycling polyethylene into its packaging and distribution final steps, the life cycle of duct tape at this stage can be improved to be more environmentally-conscious.
By analyzing the processing of duct tape by breaking down the steps of manufacturing machine usage, various types of transportation vehicles and their respective fuel emissions, as well as distribution center packaging operations emissions, the life cycle of duct tape wastes from start to finish throughout can be determined to be an accumulative process from step to step. By using alternate methods of production in some steps, the sustainability of producing duct tape can be increased such as using waste products as materials or making parts of the tape removable and thus recyclable. In order for duct tape emissions to be improved and limited, its impact on the environment must also be decreased in terms of mass production.
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