The war on plastic: be careful what you wish for

There has been a huge public outcry over plastic pollution since the BBC’s Blue Planet II programme last year

AMID the current furore over plastic packaging, a number of industry stakeholders have started to warn of potential “serious environmental consequences” of switching all packaging to non-plastic alternatives and urged consumers to think carefully about the reality of life without plastics.

Just about everyone is in agreement that more must be done to stop plastic waste from entering the world’s oceans, with effective recycling and collection  systems an essential part of waste handling operations.

Some firms are under pressure to switch to non-plastic products. In the previous issue of Packaging Scotland, National Flexible chief executive Barry Twigg hit out at what he described as “paranoia” over plastic packaging, claiming it would be considered a “wonder material” if it was invented in the modern era.

Several other players involved in  the sector have joined the debate.

Andy Pretious, UK sales and marketing manager at Automated Packaging Systems, highlighted a 2014 study, which reportedly found that if a variety of plastic packaging products were replaced with non-plastic ones, the amount of packaging generated in America would increase by 55 MILLION tonnes.

“This is because plastic helps to reduce packaging weight and material, which in turn reduces the number of trucks delivering the same amount of product, thus decreasing costs, energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions,” Andy explained.

Andy said plastic still has a “key” role to play in sustainable packaging and believes it is vital that businesses communicate this message to raise awareness amongst customers.

“Businesses now need to make responsible choices about packaging and raise the alarm to their consumers,” he added. “In order to do this, they need to make some important considerations.”

The first of these is regarding product protection. “Although consumers are demanding more sustainable packaging, businesses still need to offer complete product protection,” Andy said. “A prime example is the prevention of food waste as plastic packaging can ensure food is preserved and protected. Modified atmosphere packaging helps to lower the amount of oxygen within the packaging, slowing the growth of bacteria and thereby extending the product’s shelf life. No matter how environmentally friendly a package is, if it fails to preserve food, it will result in the growing problem of food waste. Studies show that for every pound of plastic used in packaging, 1.7 pounds of food waste can be prevented. Businesses must therefore re-evaluate complex food packs that are impossible to reuse or recycle, and instead consider functional packaging that can be recycled.”

Andy said there are “many innovations” on the market that can boost recycling, including Automated Packaging Systems’ GeoTech reprocessed material, which is made up of pre-consumer recycled plastic said to reduce environmental impact without compromising on performance. 40% of the firm’s protective packaging customers are already choosing this material.

GeoTech, which is made up of recycled plastic

Andy warned that growing consumer awareness has resulted in businesses now being accountable for their plastic waste. He said, “As a result, it is important that businesses make educated decisions about the products and packaging they buy and the message they communicate to their customers on re-use and recycling as this could help to cut the amount of waste going to landfill or the ocean.”

David Baker and Katherine Fleet of RPC Group also believe that the use of alternative materials for many current plastic applications could have “serious implications”. They cited a study by Trucost in 2016, which found the environmental cost of replacing plastic with other materials would be nearly four times greater.

David and Katherine have called for “co-ordinated international action” to tackle the matter of marine litter, pointing to figures showing that only 2% of it is generated by Europe and the USA.

“If we replace plastic products with other materials, the problems of marine littering will not entirely disappear; and if the use of these alternatives leads to higher carbon emissions, then other issues such as global warming and rising sea temperatures will also impact on marine life,” they said.

David and Katherine would like to see a simplified collection system to boost recycling rates in the UK. “The plastics industry is taking many steps to reduce the amount of plastic waste in the environment, looking at solutions for the responsible use and disposal of the material, along with improved design and waste management,” they said. “Recent initiatives have seen the establishment of Operation Clean Sweep, which aims to reduce pellet loss to the environment from plastic conversion operations, and the Plastics Pact that will create a circular economy for plastics.

“Manufacturers can play their part.  At RPC, we have worked with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in the development of a designers’ toolkit for the circular economy.  This is a freely-available website with a host of methods and techniques that can be used by designers to ensure they consider the circularity of products.

“We have also introduced our own unique grading system that provides an easy visual guide to the sustainability credentials of a new pack. Through this early indication to brand owners and retailers about how their pack specifications may adversely affect its final environmental impact, further adjustments can be made in order for sustainability enhancements to be incorporated.

“Alongside all this, we have to change attitudes to waste and littering among consumers. Education and even legislation are needed so that littering becomes regarded as totally unacceptable. Plastics are recyclable and are too valuable a resource to waste.

“We need systems in place that enable more recycling to take place, but we also need to change people’s mindset so that they actively want to recycle more, and start to regard plastics as a resource and not a throwaway product.

“This is a lifestyle change, and that is entirely appropriate as lifestyle change has been one of key drivers behind the growth in plastic packaging over the years.

“Today we take for granted the convenience of ready-prepared meals and the ability to enjoy what were previously seasonal products all year-round; we can find a single portion or family size product according to the size of our household; we like the fact that garden and DIY products are easy to handle and can be stored safely, even outdoors.

“Plastic packaging has developed to reflect the world we live in.  It is safe, hygienic, functional, lightweight and durable, while its cost-effectiveness helps to keep prices down for consumers. Its low carbon and resource efficiency are valuable environmental benefits, as is its ability to minimise food waste. Plastic packaging uses far less resources than the products it protects.

“It is up to all of us to ensure that, like any other material, plastics can be used and disposed of responsibly. This will ensure that they can continue to deliver their many benefits.”

Nigel Flowers, managing director of Sumitomo (SHI) Demag UK, says if we gave up plastic for good, the impact on modern day living would be “considerable”. “We’re not just talking convenience packaging,” he explained. “Mobile phones, or any electrical device for that matter, would be virtually eradicated or uneconomical to produce. As the third biggest user of plastics, after packaging and construction, without it innovation would stall.

“Examining the medical field, plastic has revolutionised patient care, increasing safety and making procedures simpler and faster to perform. Notably, plastics have contributed to a reduction in medical costs, infectious disease and improved pain management for millions of people. Medical items we take for granted, such as disposable syringes, intravenous blood bags and heart valves are made of plastic.

Plastic has helped revolutionise medical care

“Disposable devices are proven to significantly reduce the risk of cross infection among patients. Sterile plastic packaging and plastic medical disposables in particular contribute to keeping the rates of staphylococcal infections low.”

Nigel pointed to the use of high tech polymers in prosthetic devices to improve mobility for thousands of people in the UK. “For those depending on prosthetic limbs, a number of components are now made from plastic to improve comfort and offer increased flexibility. Developments in 3D polymer printing technology will open the door to custom made joints and limbs.

Mobile phones would be uneconomical to produce without plastic

“There are approximately 11 million people in the UK with hearing loss, and by 2035, this is estimated to increase to 15.6 million people. Plastic remains a fundamental component in hearing devices and ear implants.

“The UK is a nation of spectacle wearers, with over 70% of Britons now dependent on prescription glasses or contact lenses. In order to reduce the weight of glasses frames and lenses, plastic is now widely deployed. And for every disposable contact lens that’s manufactured, injection moulding creates a bespoke mould.

“By 2030, most vehicles on the road will be electric. This phasing out of conventional petrol and diesel vehicles will lead to a greater reliance on plastic, due to its lightweighting properties.

“Alternative materials continue to be developed, and although we could potentially reduce our dependence on plastics derived from fossil-based resource, right now bioplastics represents around 1% of the annual plastics production.

“In truth, making a real difference will require a joint effort, with industry stakeholders, manufacturers, suppliers and consumers being better informed and educated about the challenges, and having legislative and regulatory frameworks that actively promote sustainable development and supports innovation.”

Tony McDonald, sales and marketing director of flow wrapping machinery specialist Ilapak, said we should be wary of creating a situation where it is the “tail wagging the dog” and highlighted that the performance of plastics has developed over many decades. He explained, “Weights have been optimised. A first important point to make here is that these materials are there for a reason: they protect food and help keep it fresh for longer.

“Most famously, perhaps, a film-wrapped cucumber will remain in good condition for significantly longer than one left unwrapped. At the same time, the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) quotes research which shows that around ten times more energy and materials are locked up in goods, including foods, than in the packaging surrounding them.

“Recently, I’ve been approached at industry events and asked what we, as a company, are ‘doing about plastics’. The implied question is: ‘How are you going to eliminate them?’ But my answer is: ‘What are we doing about plastics? Helping to make them better.’ And I mean ‘better’ both in terms of performance and overall sustainability.

“A second, and equally important, point worth spelling out is that sustainable alternative materials do exist, and continue to be optimised, just as standard films have themselves gone through a process of optimisation.

“It is true that some aspects of this focus on environmental responsibility appear to be cyclical.

“I recall, almost exactly 10 years ago, a flurry of activity around alternative films. We trialled many new materials on our flow wrapping machines at that time, too. Much of that activity faded as financial and economic crises took hold, and some may be holding their breath hoping that the current scrutiny of plastics will fade in the same way.

“But I believe there are differences between 2008 and now. Attitudes have hardened among ministers, consumers and across the supply chain. At the same time, materials options have moved on considerably over the intervening decade.”

Ilapak has recently been working  with materials manufacturer Four04 to ensure its compostable EVAP film can run on Ilapak’s Vegatronic vertical bagging machine packing nuts for a major retailer. Tony added, “The film, which is engineered to offer a high moisture vapour transmission rate (MVTR) whilst retaining a gas barrier, has quite different heat sealing characteristics to a standard bagging film such as oriented polypropylene (OPP). Like the cucumber, these nuts would dehydrate and spoil quickly in a sub-optimal environment.

“To successfully run the EVAP film with 100% seal quality, Ilapak’s R&D team have made considerable design changes to their Vegatronic bagger and are now working to identify other opportunities for running this and similar polymer-based compostable films on other machines and in other applications. The environmental impact of food waste as a result of not using plastics in packaging would be simply unimaginable. Retail chains are obviously within their rights to drop all plastics packaging like a hot potato in the belief that this is a smart move for their brand. But food and drink manufacturers which innovate, for example, with sustainable polymer-based packaging could be making a much smarter and more long-sighted decision.”

Jim Hardisty, managing director of recycled plastic pallets specialist, fears news coverage about plastics polluting the oceans and conflicting reports about the success rates of recycling could result in a “confusing” message.

He explained, “Consumers and businesses want to dispose of plastics properly but need to be assured their recycling is beneficial. We supply recycled plastic items, giving them a new role as useful, safe and hygienic storage and packaging solutions. They can be used long-term, so this plastic won’t join the masses of single-use items that can’t be recycled and it won’t become an environmental hazard, and can be recycled again at the end of their use. This continuous approach or ‘loop’ and a responsible attitude towards plastic use is crucial in steering plastics away from landfill – or worse – the world’s oceans.”’s pallets and boxes come from the things we recycle at home

Jim is concerned that people might feel that their efforts to recycle certain plastics are not doing any good. “The UK has a plastic packaging recycling target of 57% by 2020 and while innovators look to make wider use of recycled plastics, I think the greatest incentive to improve recycling rates comes from showing where our efforts are making an impact,” he said.

“Our recycled plastic pallets and boxes are used in many different industries over years – decades, even – and they come from exactly the things we all recycle at home. We can provide reassurance that recycling is part of a joined up approach to waste, and one which works to protect the environment. This goes for preventing an over-reliance on cardboard and paper, too, and the trees used to make short-life paper and cardboard packaging.”

Plastics recycler Axion Polymers says that by focusing on ‘local issues’ such as plastic straws and coffee cups, politicians are failing to see the bigger picture – the exportation of waste plastics ending up in oceans. “The actual tonnages of these minor fractions of single-use plastics are tiny in comparison to the big issue,” said dirctor Keith Freegard.

Axion said the UK traditionally exports around 450,000 tonnes of plastic pack waste to Asia every year. The firm highlighted figures  showing a dramatic fall in exports to China in the first quarter of 2018 compared to the same period in 2017 and a major rise in exports to other Asian countries. Axion added that China’s National Sword ban on imported plastic waste has resulted in “hundreds of containers” being shipped to other Asian countries including Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia and Sri Lanka. “82% of ocean plastic originates in Asia Pacific countries,” Keith said. “If we were worried about standards of residual waste disposal in China, then we should be even more concerned about waste treatment infrastructure in these less-developed countries. This, of course, begs the question ‘how much of the 450,000 tonne pa is actually unrecyclable?’

“Sadly I think, along with many others in this industry, that quite a significant percentage of plastic waste from the UK householders’ kerbside collection stream is ending up in rivers, and subsequently the oceans. Rather than wasting taxpayers’ money on a plastic straw consultation, what the UK Government should be doing is finding out exactly how much of the exported waste to all those countries is being turned into really high-grade plastic.

“And what is happening to the fraction that is not being properly recycled? Around 15 to 20%, I guess. Is that going straight into the oceans?  If it is, we’ve got a dreadful system.”

Jessica Baker, a director at plastics reprocessing firm Chase Plastics agrees. She said, “Banning straws and other single-use plastic when the oceans are filling with our exported plastic is like fiddling while Rome burns. It will do very little to change the problem of plastics in our oceans. If we think we have found a new home for the low grade mixed plastic waste that China did not want, should we not be concerned that it might be inundating countries that already have a much poorer environmental record than China, and will struggle to cope to actually reprocess all this material?

“The reality is that plastic needs to be sorted into its separate polymers and formats in order to facilitate final reprocessing back into reusable pellets, but as long as we keep sending poorly sorted plastic overseas for reprocessing a significant proportion of this mix will end up in open landfill, the rivers and then oceans overseas.”

Jessica believes the answer is to make products more recyclable, collect them and reprocess them in the UK. She added, “Exported plastics should be of a sorted, single polymer stream or format so that overseas preprocessors do not have to re-sort it and throw out what they can’t use. Only this is going to address our contribution to the problem of ocean plastic.”

Yorkshire Packaging Systems said the recent publicity is an opportunity to educate people on best practice when it comes to handling and disposing of the material. The firm said, “Plastic is at the centre of YPS – it’s who we are and it’s what we do. Without plastic, in the form of shrink film, we wouldn’t be here today. You could be forgiven for thinking we are hurriedly digging out our C.V.’s in response to the news hype and the Government’s new 25-year plan. Rather, we are fully embracing the publicity about plastics because it will drive discussion about related, and perhaps more important topics such as recycling and reusing – something we have always wanted to occur.”