We live in a disposable society: our clothes and appliances are designed to be used for a short time before they are thrown away and replaced. We use items like cell phones until they break or until a newer model comes out. Plastic bags and bottles are often used once and then thrown away.
This disposable mindset reveals itself not only in the disposable consumer items produced by manufacturers, but also in the technologies they use to make them. Filters are used both to clean up polluted water and to separate chemicals during manufacturing. Most of the industrial filters used today are polymeric filters, made of plastic. They are cheap, and they must be replaced often. The materials they are made of, like polyamides and polyester, cannot be easily recycled and never fully break down in landfills. They only become smaller bits of plastic.
When polymeric filters are used to clean up polluted water, to make biofuels, or in some other environmentally “friendly” process, they can still actually harm the environment. Those bits of plastic that they degrade into will stay on the earth forever. As long as companies continue with a disposable mindset, we will never truly address environmental issues. We need to create a sustainable society, which the Sustainable Society Foundation defines as:
- that meets the needs of the present generation,
- that does not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,
- in which each human being has the opportunity to develop itself in freedom, within a well-balanced society and in harmony with its surroundings.”
In order to create this sustainable society, companies designing new technologies should not only take into account the benefits that their product has for the world but also the sustainability of their manufacturing process and of the product itself. This is the idea behind Life Cycle Analysis.
The Illinois Sustainable Technology Center defines Life Cycle Analysis as “the systematic approach of looking at a product’s complete life cycle, from raw materials to final disposal of the product . It offers a ‘cradle to grave’ look at a product or process, considering environmental aspects and potential impacts.” This sort of comprehensive look at the entire lifespan of a product, from getting the raw materials to disposing of the product, exposes the true impact of different technologies, revealing which ones are actually sustainable.
This analytical approach is applicable to the filtration world. One of the main alternatives to polymeric filters are ceramic filters. Polymeric (plastic) filters are more common and cheaper, but, in the harsh conditions of large industries, polymeric filters have to be replaced yearly or even daily. Conversely, ceramic filters are usually replaced once every ten years. They are more durable and can be cleaned for re-use more easily than polymeric filters, quickly making back their higher capital cost.
Ceramic filters are much more sustainable throughout their entire lifespan as a product. They can be used in processes beneficial to the environment, such as producing clean water and biofuels, and, since they are made of minerals, they will eventually break down into dust. Moving away from polymeric filters and toward ceramics filters is one step closer to a sustainable society.