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There is no such thing as “Single Use Plastics”

There is no such thing as “Single Use Plastics”

For over 40 years the world snooker championships have been held at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. Throughout most of those years the players and the spectators have benefited from the heating provided by Sheffield’s waste to energy conversion plant. This facility not only provides central heating and hot water to many of the city’s civic buildings and housing estates, but there is also a sufficient surplus energy to feed the national grid, recycling Sheffield’s domestic waste into energy, but more of this later.

 

Plastic Reduction

At the risk of upsetting some of the UK’s largest food and drink manufacturing companies, along with W.R.A.P. and several government agencies, the recent “Plastic Pact Initiative” which pledges to eliminate problematic or unnecessary single use plastic packaging. This proposal seems to be little more than a knee jerk reaction to the current “plastic paranoia” created (and sustained) by the BBC and the popular press. Based on our experience in the food packaging industry we find no one consciously using unnecessary or single use packaging. Indeed packaging reduction is the major driver towards the use of lightweight plastic to replace board, tin and glass.

UK Recycling: The facts are

Polypropylene, Polyethylene and Polyesters in all their various forms are all 100% recyclable. As these materials constitute by far the most popular plastics for packaging food and drink (probably more than 80% by weight) none can be designated as “single use plastics”, they are all collectable and recyclable. However, the problem arises when these plastics are laminated with other materials such as nylon and/or treated with metallised, PVDC or acrylic coatings. They then become not only inseparable but unable to be recycled within the conventional meaning of the word i.e. re-used. However these specialised treatments are only undertaken to preserve and protect our food and make the contents edible over a longer period. (We have one customer’s product which must remain edible for 2 years, whatever the prevailing climate). Without these treatments many perishable foods would deteriorate and there would be a major increase in virtually all types of UK food waste. This is currently estimated at circa 10 million tonne per annum with a value estimate of £12 billion. 

Interestingly many of the signatories to the “Plastic Pack Initiative” are also signatories to the Courtauld Agreement which aims to eliminate all food waste by 2025. To suggest that these two undertakings are irreconcilable is simply being polite! Unless there is a dramatic development in polymer which replicates in one film the tensile strength of Nylon, the hermetic seal strength of PE, the barrier properties of metallisation or EVOH with the clarity of polypropylene this would indeed be a wonder material.

 

So what is the solution?

  • We need to eliminate the doubt in the mind of the consumer, the current confusion around which packaging can and can’t be recycled
  • The terminology “can be recycled where facilities are available” is a commonly used explanation which should be scrapped, it’s meaningless and misleading. Who knows what facilities are available?
  • Those plastics which can easily be recycled the OPP, PE and PET should be plainly labelled as such
  • All other plastics should be collected for incineration for conversion into energy for the heating of our towns and cities and providing additional energy to the national grid. Thus we would have only two categories of plastic, three if the PET/HDPE bottles were kept separate from film waste. With 100% of the material being beneficially re-used.

 

However the problems are

  • The current guidance on plastic packaging needs simplifying so the public can easily understand it. This needs a complete government review.
  • There are 380 local authorities in the UK, 80% of which have different recycling strategies. Until we have a national strategy for plastic waste disposal the current chaotic collection and disposal systems will continue.
  • We need more combined heat and power waste conversion facilities. In the UK currently there are 41 plants with a further 8 being built, by comparison Japan has over 1000! Scandinavia has more combined heat and power plants than the UK. These countries are not ignorant of the need for resource conservation, they simply see domestic “waste” as a key resource.

 

Conclusion

The benefits of a National strategy for plastic waste disposal, allied to simplified guidance to the consumer as to which bin the plastic should be deposited in are self-evident. This would seem to me to be a much more sensible co-ordinated approach than the recent “Plastic Packaging Initiative”. Plastic is capable of producing cheaper, cleaner energy than petrol, diesel or aeroplane fuel. Plastic is a precious commodity which should not be wasted. It is by far the most environmentally beneficial packaging material currently available to us and it is incomprehensible that its disposable should become the focus of so much ill-informed prejudice. None of these proposals solve the problem of litter or indeed those countries that simply dispose of their domestic waste by dumping it in the world’s oceans but then neither does the “Plastic Packaging Initiative”. Nevertheless I appreciate there are alternative views, therefore if you would like to comment on any of the issues raised in these notes please feel free to do so, alternatively you can join me on LinkedIn.

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