Why it's time to stop the plastic bashing

Written by: James Lee | Published:
Photo credit: WRAP
I couldn't agree more, plastics are not the problem they are being made out to be. All the people ...

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It seems to have become the norm to deride plastics and condemn them as bad for the environment.

Brought into public focus though Blue Planet II, the issue has gathered pace with the 25 Year Environment Plan and the EU Plastic Strategy. Unfortunately, there can be a danger of trying to tackle hugely complicated worldwide issues with eye-catching headlines rather than fully considering cause and effect.

We’ve already seen it with the plastic bag tax. The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) found that: “The environmental impact of an individual carrier bag reduces if people reuse it many times. [And that] ...some types of bag would need to be reused for shopping many times in order to avoid an emissions impact greater than that of a single-use bag.

"A reusable cotton bag, for example, would need to be reused over 130 times (equivalent to daily use for over four months) to have the same impact as a thin plastic bag used once. This would increase to 393 times if the plastic bag were used three times.”

Those working on the environmental and recycling side of a local authority will know that plastic is highly recyclable when treated properly and can be used to generate energy at the end of its useful life. Crucially, they will also know that plastic products are an integral part of the waste management and recycling infrastructure.

We need to ensure the whole picture has been looked at before any new bans, taxes or policy changes are implemented in the name of helping the environment. Unintended consequences such as the use of heavier, more polluting alternatives, would have a worse effect.

However, the plastic debate is important because it is helping to address the way plastics are designed, produced, used, re-used, disposed of and re-processed. The recently formed UK Plastics Pact is bringing together the plastics packaging value chain behind a common vision and ambitious set of targets, to create a circular economy for plastics.

The right tool for the job

Plastics are a popular product thanks to their versatility, resource profile and price. If they weren’t the best option to package products and materials then manufacturers wouldn’t use them. Although there have been issues with over packaging, plastics cost money so manufacturers and retailers are not using them for the sake of it.

Getting back to the cause and effect argument, what are the alternatives and what would be the impact of using them? Glass is much heavier and so transport costs and emissions are much greater – a typical truck load of glass jars weighs 19 tonnes more than the plastic equivalent . It’s also far more fragile and can lead to further wastage.

As for bags, we’ve already seen that ‘bags for life’ may not be the solution, so what are the other alternatives? Why can’t we return to paper bags is an often heard refrain? Well go ahead, paper bags are widely available, but let’s not kid ourselves they just grow on trees.

The energy used and associated emissions means that paper bags have a global warming potential four times greater than a single-use plastic bag, and recycling paper uses 91% more energy than plastic.

Reinforce existing environmental legislation

Through the media, people are associating plastic with anti-social behaviour (littering) and bad waste management, and there’s no denying it is both a problem today and a future threat to the environment.

The bigger issue though is climate change, and the human impact on climate change will be accelerated if we reject modern lightweight plastic materials. The problems of plastic litter and marine pollution are very real and need tackling.

However, they are the result of littering or poor waste management, meaning the leakage of valuable resources is caused by our established infrastructure, not something inherent in the material.

The British Plastics Federation reports says the largest source of leakage of plastic items into the oceans is from a small number of Asian and Pacific rim countries that account for over 80% of ocean waste. Instead of a wholesale attack on plastic and a rush to find alternatives which may have worse consequences, such as an increase in food waste or C02 emissions, let’s take a more rounded approach.

Rather than taxes or bans on plastic packaging, which punish everyone, governments should be concentrating efforts on reinforcing existing environmental regulations, and increasing penalties and fines for individuals and corporations who flout the law and create the problem; revenues from fines could pay for clean-ups.

Banning plastic items (it’s not just plastic packaging washing up on the beaches) would have tremendous disadvantages to modern living and would create huge inefficiencies in the supply chain, with associated costs to the environment.

Plastic is part of the solution

Without plastic waste and recycling sacks, what would waste be collected in? From our perspective, we’re in the business of supplying products that are an integral part of the waste management and recycling infrastructure, so that materials stay in the system to the eventual point of disposal, be it re-use, recycling, compostable, or energy from waste.

James Lee is managing director at Cromwell Polythene. He will be speaking at RWM on 12 September.

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I couldn't agree more, plastics are not the problem they are being made out to be. All the people calling for plastic to be banned should firstly try imagining a world without plastic, it would be an absolute nightmare, food waste would increase dramatically as would damage to other goods. Perhaps a better use of the foreign aid budget would be to help some of the developing countries that James mentions and use this fund to provide practical aid, assistance and expertise in developing adequate waste management and recycling systems to deal with waste and packaging. In addition to protecting the local environment this would create employment and generate income from the sale of raw materials and recycled products helping all concerned.
Pete Thompson of Synergy Compliance Limited

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Very true. Need of the hour is to inculcate habit of recycling plastic product either by panelty or rewards. Out of the box solution is required. All manufacturer of plastic product must look for life cycle of plastic and reward to repeat buyer who return back plastic.

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The are still in many areas confused as to what plastics are acceptable for recycling. There is still packaging going to landfill which should be recycled, and vice versa. However, there are numerous products such as cling film, polystyrene, rigid plastics, perspex, film covers from meat trays, etc, etc which should not go to landfill, but which should without dealy be directed down the incineration/energy from waste route.

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We agree. We must not demonise plastic which is an incredible packaging material, but we also must observe the Reduce Reuse Recycle Recover hierarchy. So better designed plastic packaging, using the right - and minimal amount - of polymer, properly labelled so consumers know how to dispose of it. And the right infrastructure in place to collect and recycle it/treat as waste. Which means recognising people don't want to walk more than 30 steps to a bin in high footfall areas, and need the bins to be very clearly labelled too!

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