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Use of Plastic 

The impact of plastic waste is a hot topic, rightfully so, in the current press.  As David Attenborough celebrates 50 years in television so we celebrate our 50th year as plastic specialists. From our beginnings in 1969 we have worked with plastic to help do more with less, delivering benefits for a wide variety of businesses. 

Here’s a little more about how we are mindful of our position and impact:
  • we use plastics which are recyclable.  Any of our customers can take any of our plastic to be recycled.
  • we recycle 98% of our waste plastic.  We are striving to improve on this. Currently, the 2% we don't recycle comprise chippings which are not recyclable.
  • we manufacture products, parts and components from plastic which are more durable, easy to repair and last longer than when made with an alternative material.  Our products are not intended to be disposable, rather the opposite: they are intended to be in use for much longer.  Their longer life cycle means less production.  For example, a plastic part potentially only needs producing once whereas the same part produced in steel would need replacing and reproducing.  This makes the lifecycle of a plastic part better. Just as important, plastic parts are lighter – around 20% of what a steel part weighs.  Where weight determines the amount of fuel used, less fuel means fewer emissions.  There's no doubt that creating plastic in the first place (virgin plastic) emits a significant amount of greenhouse gas but using recycled plastic can save on average two tonnes of CO2 for every tonne of plastic recycled.
  • we do not create any plastic bottles or bags which are one of the main causes of ocean pollution.  These popular types of plastic packaging are made from a plastic called PET which is highly recyclable. However, efforts to collect and recycle the many plastic bottles and bags that are being used are failing.
While we’ve been working with plastic over the last 50 years global production has grown nearly 3 times faster than global GDP - from around 2m tonnes pa to something like 380m tonnes pa. Growth driven because plastic is just so useful at helping us do more with less, delivering benefits for a wide variety of different businesses. We can extoll them all (and do often). Key are:
  • weight (plastic is light meaning plastic parts weigh a fraction of a comparable part made with another material)
  • durability (plastic lasts a long time meaning plastic parts don’t need replacing or ‘down time’ as comparable parts made with another material)
  • chemical resistance (plastic can withstand the most hazardous of environments without damage or decay which comparable parts made with another material would suffer in).  

We manufacture many parts and products from plastic because they are more durable, are easier to repair and last longer than when made with an alternative material. In this regard, items we produce are not disposable, rather the opposite: in use for much longer.
But, increasingly, plastic is vilified as a pollutant, harmful to the environment and, fearful for their reputations, businesses are under pressure.  We turn our attention to that.
The Weight of ‘The Polymer Problem’
Plastic is used in two main ways: to create more durable parts and products which perform better and as single use products eg) packaging and containers. Unfortunately, with the latter, there has been little management of plastic waste produced globally. Roland Geyer of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his colleagues published a paper in Science Advances (2016) putting the cumulative amount of solid plastic waste produced since the 1950s that has not been burned or recycled at 4.9bn tonnes
It is estimated that around 60% of plastic waste has been dumped in landfills or the natural environment, often after the plastic has been used just once. Think of plastic bottles, wrappers, cups. And, unlike other kinds of pollution, plastic is quite a visible eyesore contributing to an increasing perception that plastic is ugly, unnatural and inauthentic. More recently, as raised in the second series of Blue Planet (aired in the UK October 2017), there is suspicion that plastics could be harmful to humans and the environment.  Yet little is known about the environmental consequences of plastic. While researchers develop their scientific understanding, campaigners are taking a precautionary approach with a message The Economist summarises as along the lines of ‘if the impact of something is uncertain but could be great, better forestall just in case’.
Plastic Is Weighing Heavily On Our Minds
Eurobarometer report that 9/10 Europeans worry about plastic’s impact on the environment.  Countries are taking action; plastic shopping bags have been banned (Bangladesh, France and Rwanda) and usage is being reduced by levy in our own country. More than 50% of people polled for Eurobarometer in 2017 said they try to forego plastic bags when shopping. Targets are set in a European ‘plastics strategy’ to make all plastic packaging recyclable by 2030 and increase the amount of it recycled from 30% to 55% over the next 7 years.  China has barred imports of plastic waste. Fearful for their reputations, businesses are under pressure to collect, recycle and change to use more recycled plastics and renewable sources.   
The latest reports show that choosing plastic compares favourably to other material choices
Making a kilogram of virgin plastic or steel releases the same 2-3kg of carbon dioxide, about 5 times more than wood. But, because plastic is so light, its overall cost compares favourably with other man made material choices.  According to Trucost, a research arm of financial information provider Standard & Poor’s, replacing plastic with other materials could raise environmental costs fourfold. The study also found that plastics help us reduce our environmental footprint (by reducing material use, energy use, waste, and carbon emissions) and that replacing plastics with alternatives would increase the amount of energy and transportation fuel we use, raise greenhouse gas emissions, and result in more litter.  The study says that replacing plastics with alternatives that perform the same function would increase environmental costs from $139 billion to $533 billion annually. Why the lower environmental cost for plastics? Because plastics help us do more with less material.

The overall social and environmental cost of plastic pollution has been estimated at $139bn by Trucost’s analysts.  Over $70bn of this is linked to effects on climate from greenhouse gas emissions from producing and transporting plastic; around $46bn is associated with land, water and air pollution. While these figures are significant they pale compared to other pollutants.  The figure for farming is $3bn. Fertiliser run-off causes $200-800bn worth of damage to the ocean compared to $13bn from plastic litter. $50bn is associated with over-fishing (source:  United Nations Development Program); $1.2trn associated with ocean acidification is expected by 2100.  Of the 3.6m tonnes of solid waste discarded daily around the world, 10% is plastic. 
Using less plastic is, at the very best, only part of the solution
Bans and penalties may be better for our conscience than our environment.  It is our collection and management of waste plastic that is key. Virtually all plastic waste is collected in Europe, America and other developed countries. Landfill (and preventing additives from leaching) coupled with building recycling capacity are more important to manage the problems reported and doing this within our own countries is more critical with China’s import ban. 

Another better solution is to improve waste management infrastructure to collect more where plastic waste is most mis-managed. Scientists at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, in Germany, found that ten rivers—two in Africa and the rest in Asia—discharge 90% of all plastic marine debris. The Yangtze alone carries 1.5m tonnes a year. Picking up waste in these leaky Asian countries would make a significant impact.

Countries shaded according to their mass of mismanaged plastic waste in 2010. Countries not included are shaded white. Credit: Jambeck et. al.