All hail the hidden heroes of plastics

Pete Beavis

Pete Beavis, senior sector specialist and materials scientist at R&D tax credit specialist ForrestBrown, explains why we need to stop demonising plastics, approach new bioplastics with care and celebrate those who are innovating to reduce the impact on the environment.

It’s an unpopular opinion, but I firmly believe plastics and the polymers that comprise them are wonder materials. They touch nearly every part of our lives, from medicines and manufacturing to finance and food.

But with this belief comes a colossal burden. The WWF calculates that total plastic waste generation will be around 6.3 million tonnes by 2030. Herein lies the problem. It’s not plastic per se, but the amount and way we use it combined with the impact it has on the natural world after it’s served its initial purpose.

False prophets 

As an industry and nation, we hardly need reminding of the desperate need to take action, which is why we often hear about new biopolymers that are going to save the world. Sadly, they often fail to make an impact.

I do accept that innovation like this is sorely needed, but we can’t pin all our hopes on new materials that quite often can’t be used to hold liquids, and for which there are no existing recycling options.

Whilst reusing and recycling a material are usually the preferred options, biodegradability is perceived to be preferable to long timescale persistence in the environment or incineration. And indeed it is. But biodegradability may not be quick enough to lessen the impact of poorly-disposed waste or eliminate any harm to wildlife, and it fails to diminish the impact of the production process through reducing demand.

I believe it’s far more attractive to promote an approach of continual innovation in the production and use of plastics, whereby each improvement may individually be small. But by tackling the issue bit by bit, we can find ways to make plastic far less damaging, while still benefitting from its properties.

In essence, we need to use less of it, make it more recyclable and ensure it doesn’t cause havoc in the oceans. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Perhaps not, but there are plenty of unsung heroes innovating every single day towards achieving this. Despite trying to make a difference they’re often vilified for being involved with a material that can be so troublesome, but which we all desperately need.

Plastic’s image problem is not inherent to the material. After all, it becomes pollution only when it becomes discarded plastic.

Plastic heroes 

A great example of an unsung plastic hero is Aegg, which replaced polystyrene sheet containers with polyethylene terephthalate (PET). The former has great functionality but is not widely recycled primarily because the waste stream is not widely accessible or commercially attractive. PET, on the other hand, is widely recyclable. The team overcame the challenge, finding a way to process PET via injection moulding for the job in hand in place of the conventional blow-moulding technology.

Taken alone this innovation neither solves nor comes close to addressing all of our concerns and hopes for plastics and packaging. However, whilst unlikely to grab the front-page headlines, if you add up all the little incremental innovations like this across all industries and countries, it makes a huge impact. Many small changes combined add up to a revolution.

How do we foster innovation?

Contrary to their depiction in the mass media as resource-hungry, waste-generating perpetuators of throw-away culture, the polymer and plastics industry is very keen on becoming more efficient and less damaging. The Government is also doing its bit to drive change, including a plastic packaging tax that will come into force from April 2022.

However, it doesn’t stop there. All this innovation is supported through research and development (R&D) tax credits, meaning every development – large and small – is incentivised. The credits are a valuable source of cash for businesses to invest in accelerating their R&D, hiring new staff and ultimately growing.

They’re open to any business that spends money developing new materials, products, processes or services; or enhancing existing ones. The claim results in either a cash payment, a Corporation Tax reduction, or both. The scope for identifying R&D is huge – in fact, it exists in every single sector.

In these challenging circumstances, we also have a responsibility to support this vital work in any way we can. With industries and citizens depending on plastic, it is isn’t going away any time soon. Making better and longer lasting plastic products, and ensuring what’s created is recyclable and doesn’t end up in our seas is the true path to reducing plastic use. Which is why we should all hail the hidden heroes of plastic and give them every opportunity to further their work.