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Perspective – The Solution to Plastic Paranoia

Every picture tells a story.

These three photographs were taken last week, near our holiday home in the Algarve. There is no house to house waste collection here, so we all have to take our rubbish to the nearest waste collection point. These are usually emptied daily, but obviously a few days were missed when these pictures were taken, which allowed the waste to accumulate.

However, what these pictures show is the disparity between the different volumes of waste generated. Whilst the glass and board are overflowing, there is still space in the plastics bin, and whilst some of this waste is ‘commercial’, by far the majority comes from the surrounding villas.

This highlights that plastic waste is around 12% of our domestic waste by volume and far less than this by weight. So, why are the politicians and media so obsessed with this 12% of plastic and virtually ignore the other 88% of materials?

Nevertheless, we have to deal with this reality, so why don’t we? First of all, ensure that the bulk of the plastic used currently is recycled. Despite what we are led to believe, this is relatively easy, the reason being that by far the biggest volume and weight of plastic waste is rigid, predominantly this is bottles, pots, and trays.

There are already moves afoot to introduce into the UK a deposit return scheme for plastic bottles. Similar schemes are currently in operation in some 38 countries worldwide and whilst these include many European countries, such as Germany and Belgium, these schemes are also used in countries as far afield as Fiji. Without doubt, the most successful scheme is in Norway, where some 97% of all plastic bottles are collected for recycling.

If we accept that there are circa 13 billion plastic bottles used every year in the UK and only 7.5 billion of these are recycled, a collection scheme sufficiently attractive to encourage recycling of the other 5.5 billion bottles would make a major difference to the publics perception of the validity of using plastic.

However, why stop there? There are over 500,000 tons of rigid plastic pots and trays, many of these used for ready meals, meat, fruit, and some bakery products. Most of these are PET, in all its various forms, thus, easily recyclable with PET bottles, why not include these in the scheme, ensuring that the material is kept in productive use as long as possible?

Perspective – How do we deal with the remaining plastic waste? 

In total, the UK generates some 100 million tons of waste every year, of which circa 2.4 million tons is plastic packaging waste (2.4%). Yet it is nearly always plastic packaging which is vilified by both the media and the politicians. Thus, the whole debate on ‘problem plastics’ lacks perspective.

Figures from the Environment Agency indicate that currently circa 50% of all plastic waste in the UK is recycled. It is probable an effective deposit return scheme would result in many of the current 5.5 billion plastic bottles and much of the ½ million tons of rigid plastic waste would be collected, taking the overall recycling rate above 60/65%. After which, we are left with the ‘Problem Plastics’, these are the sophisticated film structures used in lamination coextrusion and metallization to give our food extended shelf life. In the process, reducing our food waste, enabling the UK to have one of the lowest food waste figures per capita (75kg PA) in the developed world (e.g. Germany 154kg PA).

These sophisticated plastics, whilst reducing greenhouse gas emissions, are impossible to separate and should therefore, post recycling, be collected and incinerated in Combined Heat and Power energy from waste plants.

Why on earth should we try to separate and process these films? They are energy in solid form with a higher calorific content than coal. There are 38 countries worldwide who derive waste from energy, in total there are 2450 plants, yet the UK has just 40! Japan has over 1000, whilst Sweden successfully incinerates 50% of all its waste. Germany, hailed as a leader in waste recycling, has 93 plants with the first one opened in 1894.

Much is made of the dioxins which come from burning waste, however, Sheffield has burned its domestic waste for over 70 years with no suggestion of any noticeable negative effects on the health of the local population.

Recyclate from mixed plastic waste is more expensive than virgin plastic, is low quality and has very few practical applications, whilst recyclate from plastics, such as PET, save both energy and money. So, we need to ask, why are we so paranoid about recycling 100% of all plastics? Why not just the ones that have an after use?

We use around 11 million tons of paper and board in the UK each year. Over 70 % is recycled. That leaves some 3 million tons not recycled, this is more than all the plastic we use for packaging in the UK.

That’s what is meant by perspective!     

Meanwhile, I would welcome your views and why not join me on LinkedIn for more regular updates.





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Graham Parker

Once again, thanks for the balanced and informative report which puts this subject into persepective. This is what the mainstream media lacks.

Derek Ryden

Very good and balanced perspective, especially when compared with views frequently expressed by both environmentalists and the packaging industry (even previous postings on this site!).

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