TAKING RESPONSIBILITY: TO USE OR REUSE
EU Directive 2019/04 prohibiting single-use plastics is set to revolutionise the plastics packaging industry by 2025. The world’s main FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) makers have already signed a key document drawn up by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the international non-profit association advocating the establishment of a circular economy. They have committed to reducing the amount of virgin material in packaging and increasing returnable PET (polyethylene terephthalate) quotas.
The world is changing.
The UK’s plastics industry today is heavily reliant on imports of raw materials and machinery, primarily from EU countries. It is also a big importer of plastic goods but the domestic industry is well represented across the whole plastics supply chain; from producers, distributors, equipment, additives and masterbatch through to plastics processors and recyclers.
The UK market used to be dominated by big chemical companies; it is now more dispersed, with a portfolio of often highly specialised businesses. Engineering plastics are a particular domestic speciality.
The good, the bad and the unacceptable
The prevalence of plastics is down to their unique set of properties. They are light, strong, cheap and mouldable, all of which cut production and transport costs and can reduce carbon emissions. They have revolutionised medical hygiene and food preservation. Manufactured plastics are inert; they do not interact with medicines or foodstuffs. They are lighter than other materials, such as glass and ceramics. They are easier to handle and less likely to break. They are essential to modern life.
Despite these success stories the industry’s image has not been great, for a while. David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II series highlighted the growing – and genuine – problem of plastic waste. This goes alongside wider concerns about microplastics, the structure of the domestic recycling system, the ‘out of sight out of mind’ approach to waste disposal and the industry’s dependence on petrochemicals.
Incentives for change
Should we just abandon plastics? The facts suggest not. In addition to its advantages in practice it is a major industry in its own right. It employs 166,000 people across 6200 companies and is the third-largest employer in UK manufacturing, Every year, the UK produces 1.8 million tonnes of plastic material and processes 3.2 million tonnes. About a third of all plastics and plastic products produced in the country are exported, with a total value of £8.2bn.
It turns over around £25.5bn annually.
The recycling message has been taken on board. UK plastic packaging recycling reached 45% in 2016, which was – at the time – the seventh highest level in the EU. Seventy-five per cent of plastic packaging is now diverted from landfill.
The most visible and widely-used plastic products are used in packaging – especially food packaging, There is an argument for abandoning plastic for natural products, like paper, or ‘recyclable’ materials, like glass. But that is far from the end of the story. The energy involved in manufacturing alternative packaging, whether aluminium, paper or glass, is not to be dismissed. And paper hangs around in the environment for years, as well; it does not decompose overnight.
Glass is expensive to collect, sterilise and reuse and is costly to remanufacture when it breaks, as it does every few cycles. The energy involved is intense. It grinds down to small granules – but so does plastic!
But plastic needs to get its act together in order to promote the responsible image that the industry would like. Some of the problem is simply about image; the advantages of plastics are overwhelmed by the sight of polluted rivers and beaches, badly affected wildlife and news that the most recent exploration of the Marianas Trench in the Pacific Ocean found an undegraded plastic shopping bag at 10,000 metres’ depth.
The industry in the developed world has a generally pretty effective collection infrastructure. What it does not have is an effective recycling and reuse industry – a circular economy, as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation describes it. Far too much plastic (and other waste) is collected and then sent overseas to developing economies that supposedly are going to recycle it. That is simply not the truth: it ends up in rivers, rubbish tips, beaches and the sea.
China used to be the world’s number one importer of post-consumer plastics; it has put up the shutters. So has Malaysia and other countries in Africa and SE Asia are likely to follow suit, if they have not done so already.
There is no alternative: the industry has to get its house in order. Circular manufacturing has to become the norm.
Practical problems and black boxes
There are challenges – not least, how polymer molecules degrade under the pressures of regrind and reprocessing. Do they have a Second Life? Are they reusable or is landfill or incineration going to remain the ultimate destination indefinitely?
Some plastics are already quite well established as reusable, in one way or another. PET (polyethylene terephthalate), the plastic bottle material, can be recycled to original use, including at food standard. A big question is: how often? According to Krzystof Bruski, of machine manufacturers Engel, the limit has not yet been reached. However, it is not entirely simple and straightforward. Paul Holland, Design and Innovation Manager with BEC Group, observes that characteristics such as plasticity, hardness and resistance will decline with each reprocessing. Getting precise information is not easy; there is still a lot of ‘black box’ mystery about reprocessed material.
“I asked one supplier about fire retardance and they said they could add the chemicals to ensure it. However, when I have encountered failures in use, the response has been – too often – ‘well, it’s regrind’,” he said.
Degeneration is often down to contamination of the regrind or flakes. German company Gneuss Kunststofftechnik GmbH, which specialises in machinery for polymer reprocessing, says that filter technology, especially, has advanced so much that even very small pollutants can be removed by filtration. Italian company Sukano AG says that its range of masterbatches can be used to restore molecular integrity and performance to ‘as new’ standards.
The more demanding the application the more important it is to know exactly how a plastic will perform in use. Thermoformed engineering plastics, for example, do not have a reputation for recyclability.
Whatever the claims about reprocessing and chemical solutions, manufacturers must be in a position to know exactly what is in the material they are using, in order to assess how it will perform. It’s fine to ‘downcycle’ to less demanding applications; that takes plastic out of the environment for another decade or so but, ultimately, reality cannot be avoided.