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Can plastic be circular?

07 November 2019

Yes they can, according to Cromwell Polythene managing director James Lee – who adds that circular plastic solutions can also help to combat climate change

Teenage environmental activist Greta Thunberg will yet again present at a climate conference, COP25 in Chile in December, to be a voice for our planet. Her message is clear – urgent action is needed to prevent an irreversible catastrophe.

It is vital that we act now to protect our planet but, at the same time, we must avoid knee-jerk reactions that can lead to resources being burnt through faster. Take for example the bashing that plastic has received. Brought into public focus through TV programmes including Blue Planet 2, concerns have mounted about its impact on the environment. In fact, responsibly produced plastic can have a high recycled content (up to 100%) and can be reprocessed many times, not only saving virgin material but associated energy as well. 

The right solutions for the right applications 

Plastic offers many sustainable solutions to help mitigate the effects of a changing climate, for example significantly reducing food waste. Within the cleaning industry, it enables the safe containment of liquids such as cleaning products, eliminating environmental leaching of cleaning chemicals and wastes from bottles, for instance. The industry’s use of plastic waste sacks and bags is the simplest and most cost-effective way to encourage the safe and hygienic separation and collection of materials for re-use and recycling. The lightweight characteristics of plastic also mean reduced fuel consumption, resulting in lower greenhouse gases.

Switching from plastic to alternative materials, such as glass or cardboard, is often suggested to be ‘greener’. However, this can lead to other sustainability issues, such as higher energy and water use, increased C02 emissions in production and transport (due to the extra weight of material), or an increase in food waste. 

Marine pollution (it’s not just plastic packaging washing up on the beaches) is very real. However, this is the result of littering and ineffective waste management infrastructure, not something inherent in the material.

We all want to see the recovery, reuse and recycling of every type of packaging and it is vital that we work together to find solutions to protect our environment, combat climate change, keeping products in use for as long as possible, and preventing leakage of valuable resources from the circular economy. However, whilst there needs to be action taken on waste, this does not mean we need to do battle against plastic. 

Technologies exist that mean every type of plastic can be recycled, and it needs to be used responsibly — and recycled in all cases, where feasible. When this is not possible, the energy can be recovered at an Energy from Waste (EfW) facility.

Making a pledge for our future 

The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) outlines an ambitious set of targets, to create a circular economy for plastics in its UK Plastics Pact. The aim is to eliminate all avoidable plastic packaging waste and make all plastic packaging reusable, recyclable, recycled, or compostable, by 2025. In addition, in partnership with industry associations, the Cleaning and Hygiene Suppliers Association (CHSA) is establishing a Plastics Pledge for the cleaning industry, following comprehensive research and evaluation. The pledge will contain information on how to reduce plastic use and waste; and advice on the best practice for plastic use and for recycling, including which labels to use.

Using resources efficiently depends upon the engagement of everyone, working together to share expertise, so we can find achievable solutions to protect our environment and act on climate change. Unfortunately, all too often we see the sustainability spotlight focused on a single issue or product, rather than looking at the whole picture. By using positive messaging, simplifying the solutions, combined with carefully selected products and services to enable recycling, we can all be encouraged to take ownership and be a chorus for action.