Considering the sustainable use of plastic: can plastic be fantastic?

Post Date
03 June 2024
Stephen Gover
Read Time
9 minutes
  • Sustainable waste management
  • Process engineering

History and evolution of plastic packaging

Plastic, synthetic plastic to be more specific, has had a meteoric rise to prominence since its development over 100 years ago. From the invention of nitrocellulose, helping to replace ivory billiard balls and going some way to easing the burden on our elephant population; and the creation of Bakelite as the world’s first fully synthetic plastic material; plastics have become a major part of modern society.

Today, the range and use of plastic reaches far and wide. From toys to clothing, and even synthetic ice rinks. And then there’s packaging.

Packaging makes up a significant proportion of the end use of plastics, around 37% in the UK [1]. Ranging from the water bottle to the blister pack, some packaging designs more recyclable than others. Have a look around you. You can probably see at least one item made from plastic. Like it or not, plastic is here to stay. But is that such a bad thing?

Is plastic the bad guy?

It’s easy to think that it is. Plastic takes a long time to decompose - roughly 450 years [2] for a PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottle. Not only that, but when it does finally break down you get the resulting micro-plastics, which impact our ecosystems and wildlife. Not to mention the manufacture of virgin plastics relies on hydrocarbons found in finite fossil fuels, using processes that produce carbon emissions and impact our environment, contributing to global warming.

Then, there is what we see with our own eyes; rivers and oceans contaminated by endless swathes of waste plastics. All because of plastic that has been irresponsibly disposed of. Wild animals suffering and dying, for the same reason. It’s easy to blame plastic.

What good has plastic ever done?

The use of plastics in packaging has become widespread for many reasons. It’s lightweight, and therefore cheaper to transport, and easier to store than many other materials. It’s recyclable, durable, can be flexible, soft or incredibly strong depending on the application.It can be easy and quick to manufacture complex components from plastic. It can also be completely non-toxic and safe for use in children’s toys, medical applications, or food-contact-safe packaging with its excellent barrier properties prolonging the shelf-lives of our foods and drinks, significantly reducing waste and spoilage. So, it’s easy to understand why plastic has become so prominent within our packaging materials.

What are the alternatives to plastic?

There’s a general narrative around plastic, that it ends up in our oceans, on our streets, and harming our planet. This is true, but it’s important to look at the whole picture. Plastics are just materials, like metals, glass and paper. The building blocks that make these materials in their virgin form are resources such as sand, trees and oil. The extraction, cultivation and manufacturing of each of these has significant environmental impacts along with end use and disposal. When we consider the wider picture, the results can be surprising.

A 750ml glass wine bottle weighs on average around 500 grams. A 1000ml PET bottle weighs around 35 grams, over 14x less, and carries 25% more liquid. This, along with the shatter and crack resistance of PET means that fewer vehicles are required to transport the same volume of product when using plastic. If we consider the vast quantities of bottled liquid products being transported up and down our roads on a daily basis, that is a meaningful reduction in carbon footprint compared to the alternatives.

What about the circularity of glass?

Glass, like PET and other plastics, is recyclable. However, it is made of silica sand which is far from being an infinite resource. The consumption of silica and other sand varieties is contributing to an ongoing global shortage of sand as one of the world’s most widely consumed resources [3]. Manufacturing and recycling glass requires heat intensive furnaces operating around 1500 ͦC, with plastic requiring only around a fifth of that heat energy to be melted and homogenised.

And paper?

A paper bag is often considered more environmentally friendly due to its biodegradability over its plastic counterpart. However, research suggests that the production of paper bags consumes more water and has a higher environmental impact per bag than the production of traditional plastic bags [4], and that a paper bag would have to be reused 3 times in order to have a lower global warming potential than a conventional HDPE (high-density polyethylene) bag used only once [5]. They are heavier, bulkier, and therefore can be more expensive and less environmentally friendly to transport. Paper alternatives to plastic packaging, such as bottles, are often combined with unseen internal layers of plastic so that they can function as packaging. This mixing of materials can greatly reduce or remove the recyclability of the paper bottle.

The issue that runs through all of this is use (or misuse, to be more precise). Yes, it’s possible that plastic bags might, in terms of environmental impact, be friendlier than paper which requires trees, land, and lots of water to produce. There might be an opportunity to use them more times than the alternatives due to their durability, but how many times are people really reusing their bags?

It is possible that many of the issues we perceive with plastic are not down to the material itself, but down to human behaviour. The way we as consumers think about and manage our plastic waste is arguably the most important factor in this age of established recycling infrastructure and technology.

The design of packaging products, preventing or reducing recyclability, is a hot topic as major brand owners switch to more sustainable designs such as moving away from green PET bottles in favour of a clear PET bottle [6]. Not because green PET is unrecyclable, but because it isn’t as widely recycled and there are often fewer end uses for it when it is. Making their bottles clear is a small but meaningful change that increases circularity and overall recycling rates, reduces waste and simplifies the recycling process. It prevents the need for PRFs (Plastic Recovery Facilities) to allocate capital and operating costs on developing and running the infrastructure required to separate this small fraction. The action of which will inevitably impact on the efficient recovery of the star prize, clear PET.

What is the solution to the plastic problem?

We’ve all heard the mantra, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. It’s almost that simple.

Society continues to look for better, more sustainable ways to use plastic and manage our plastic waste. Thankfully there are many worthwhile incentives and schemes in place, and being developed, aimed at reducing levels of irresponsible plastic use and increasing recycling rates.

The plastic used in packaging is the result of over 100 years of development, with ups and downs along the way. More than ever before, the industry is making moves towards circularity, but it can only happen if we as consumers begin to think of plastic as the resource that it is, rather than as an out-of-sight, out-of-mind, disposable convenience.

Humankind has a vested interest in making this a reality. It’s our responsibility to reduce the levels of plastic that end up on our streets and in our oceans, and that which must be manufactured new because there isn’t enough recycled material to go around. Plastic recycling is real. It is a widespread and reliable process, but it is challenged by the quality and availability of post-consumer feedstock. i.e. the stuff that we, the consumer, have sent or failed to send for recycling.

Properly preparing and sorting plastics and other recyclables at home eases the burden on the recyclers and reduces waste down the line. Contamination, be it unwanted materials or just plain old dirt and food waste, can cause ineffective sorting and separation of materials in the recycling process, resulting in losses of good materials every time the process tries to remove the bad.

The recycling infrastructure is there to support us. It starts at home, out and about and in the workplace with our recycling bins and it ends with a tangible output of quality recycled material that will be re-used time and again.

How can SLR help?

SLR continues to work alongside many of the UK and Europe’s biggest recyclers at facilities recycling plastic and producing food-grade recycled resins for re-use in packaging. Others are recycling metals, batteries, food and general waste, treating our water, the list goes on.

Our teams continue to play important roles in the optimisation of new and existing operations using our deep understanding of plastics, recycling technologies and processes. Along with our wide range of multidisciplinary teams, we help our clients deliver their projects and extract the maximum value from their processes and, in turn, help their own clients to meet their sustainability commitments and contribute to the wider circular economy.

SLR’s philosophy is of a ‘one-team’ culture. Embedding our experts into our clients’ teams, delivering expert support on projects, from the front-end design and commissioning of new recycling facilities and processes, to the full project management of complex development works, contract development, building and civils services, planning and permitting, LCAs, market research, due diligence, and more.

Through this work, we are Making Sustainability Happen.

For more information on the services we offer, please get in touch.

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