If not plastic, then what?

Written by: Helen Mcgeough | Published:
56% of post-consumer plastic was collected globally in 2017 (Image credit: AdobeStock)

The world around us is filled with many different materials, including glass, metal, paper and plastic.

The rapid development of consumer markets has led to a strong and growing need for materials that possess advantageous properties, with plastic rising to be a leader in innovation.

Why is plastic the preferred material? Plastics are extraordinarily versatile materials and widely adaptable to many uses. They are durable, strong, lightweight, impact-resistant, chemical-resistant and waterproof.

The benefits of using plastic are apparent when comparing it to the available alternatives. Glass is heavier, thicker and considerably more fragile, therefore more problematic to transport.

Metal consumes significantly more energy during the manufacturing process, is more susceptible to corrosion, and can only be used in a limited range of products. Paper is less durable, susceptible to water damage, and produces more emissions and uses more water during its creation.

The benefits of plastics

Plastics have significant advantages over alternative materials, particularly as they are lightweight and consume less fuel to transport – something which is a key component in the global distribution of goods.

Polyethylene and polypropylene films are used in everyday applications, such as the packaging of foods and confectionary, by forming a hygienic protective barrier and extending the shelf life of perishables. Films are also used for applications including clingwrap, plastic bags, multipack coverings and the packaging of large-scale deliveries to retail outlets.

Moving from flexible to rigid packaging, polypropylene is commonly used in food packaging, such as ready-meal trays and yoghurt pots, as well as for caps and closures.

It's true to say the role of plastics in packaging is often understated.

Jack of all trades

Plastics are beneficial to much more than food and beverage applications, however. Goods such as clothes, toys and leisure articles can be exhibited in clear packaging, aiding visibility for consumer choice and protecting them from contamination.

They have a crucial role in the automotive industry too. For years, there has been a drive to reduce emissions and, as a result, improve the impact consumer goods have on the environment. Within the design and production of motor vehicles, light-weighting is a common concept. In order to improve fuel efficiency and meet industry regulations, plastics play a vital role.

In terms of volume, modern cars are composed of around half plastic, which equates to approximately 15% of the weight. Polymers are lightweight, have good durability, are less susceptible to corrosion, are more impact-resistant, are low-cost and are suited to module assembly.

Polypropylene, which is the dominant plastic in motor vehicle production, is used in bumpers, the exterior trim, the interior trim and dashboards.

From a purely consumer perspective, polymers such as polypropylene allow for greater design freedom and, ultimately, more impressive-looking vehicles. The next big thing for plastics in the automotive industry will be the electric vehicle revolution.

There are also applications for plastics in office equipment, lamination, foams, bubble wrap, leisure equipment, toys and garden furniture, and even clothing.

So, as you can see, the world really has become dependent on plastics. It's clear that plastics will retain a crucial role in consumer goods for the foreseeable future.

How easily can plastics be replaced?

As a result of the constant stream of negative "anti-plastic" images in the mainstream media and on social media platforms, retailers, consumer goods companies and governments – largely in Europe but supported by global entities – have stated their intentions to reduce plastics waste derived from packaging and single-use applications.

This has been through a combination of banning certain items, setting higher recovery and recycling targets, and placing a strong focus on maximising the use of recyclable plastics with an ultimate goal of a circular plastics economy.

Understanding the implications for natural resources and the environmental consequences of shifting away from plastics must take into account the entire supply chain. What replaces plastics? Metal? Wood? Paper? Glass?

A report by the American Chemistry Council and environmental accounting firm Trucost – which looks at emissions generated by a product – estimates that environmental costs would be five times higher if the soft drinks industry used alternative packaging such as glass, tin or aluminium instead of plastic.

Perhaps more important to your average household, any tax or levy imposed on brands and manufacturers will likely be passed on down the supply chain. Eventually, this will hit consumers' pockets and therefore is unlikely to be welcomed by many.

Intentions and implementation are not aligned

A major win, and one that could go some way to tackle the plastics problem, would be to improve waste management and collection infrastructures across the globe. While this appears simple to initiate, it is not.

In food applications, for example, the use of complex barrier flexible packaging often incorporates multiple layers of material – including different plastic films, coatings, special papers and aluminium foil. These materials are extremely difficult to separate for recycling and reuse, therefore a large proportion of flexible packaging is disposed of in landfill or by incineration.

While ongoing technological developments in new materials (including biodegradable and compostable materials) endeavour to address these issues, an eventual solution to the problem will take time.

According to our RPET Study – 2017 West Europereport, globally in 2017 56% of post-consumer PET bottles were collected globally. Within Western Europe, which had an overall collection rate of 62%, the countries that collected the largest amount were Germany, Italy, the UK, Spain and France.

These five countries accounted for just under three-quarters of the collected PET in Western Europe. Therefore the potential for recovery of large quantities of PET containers is evident.

Our research also highlights the growing challenge in improving collection rates and bale qualities. Roughly two-thirds of collection systems currently in use in Western Europe are kerbside systems, as opposed to deposit systems.

The ever-decreasing bale yield, due to contamination, suggests the dominant collection systems such as kerbside are not producing the optimum qualities, therefore adding weight to the argument in favour of bottle deposit systems.

There are a number of countries within Europe that have introduced bottle deposit schemes and have seen plastic bottle recovery rates increase to over 90%. If this is to be replicated across the globe, developing a convenient and consistent infrastructure in easy-to-access locations will be essential.

Education is the way forward

Deposit systems in isolation are not the solution to boost recycling rates, however.

Much of the negativity surrounding plastics does, in fact, focus on the way single-use plastics are disposed of. Therefore, rather than abolishing plastics altogether and losing out on their many benefits, would it not be beneficial to educate society to participate in a system that reuses the plastics we currently throw away?

For consumers to appropriately engage with a deposit return scheme in the first instance, they must understand the value of plastic as a material. We must eradicate the perception that plastic is cheap and of little value. A plastic bottle that is discarded by your average consumer can, in fact, enjoy a second life as another product.

This level of education is one that must be spearheaded by government, which possess the necessary funding and resources to make a lasting difference, but the entire supply chain has a role to play in raising awareness and understanding.

Due to the efficiencies and extraordinary performance of plastics, further analysis is required to properly measure the full impact on the supply chain – both financially and environmentally – of completely moving away from the material.

Helen Mcgeough is senior consultant at PCI Wood Mackenzie

This material is protected by MA Business Ltd copyright.
See Terms and Conditions.


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.