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A more responsible, resource–efficient future

06 April 2020

Cromwell Polythene managing director, James Lee, shares his insight on recycling best practice.

 Huge changes are taking place at home and in the workplace as we take extra care and introduce measures to help contain coronavirus. The importance of cleanliness and hygiene and careful use of resources is particularly essential.

Despite challenges, many industries and organisations are continuing to provide vital goods and services. The list of key workers includes, but is not limited to, frontline health workers and care staff, providers of food and necessary goods, the waste management sector, and those providing medical and personal protective equipment. The importance of their work cannot be overestimated and we thank them for their ongoing dedication. We, and many other sectors, are doing all that we can to support these industries by providing them with products and services essential to their work, whilst following official guidance.

Making the world cleaner and greener
Climate change is another pressing issue that we are facing. Our company ethos has always been to supply products that make the world cleaner, greener and more economical. One element of hope in this unhappy situation, is that this pandemic is making us more aware of the importance of using resources wisely. There are signs that air pollution and C02 emissions have dropped as a result of changes made to manage the virus. It will be interesting to see if governments will take more measures to ensure environmental benefits can be maintained, and resource efficiency can be improved, once this pandemic eases.

This year was expected to herald significant change on the environmental front, not least in terms of recycling and waste management in the UK. However, the Environment Bill, setting standards for improving air quality, protecting the environment and, increasing recycling, is now, rightly, on hold, as we focus on combatting Coronavirus. 

The government has outlined plans for a consistent set of recyclable materials to be collected from all households and businesses. These include weekly food waste collections, and simplification of the process. The government is also reviewing and consulting on extended producer responsibility.

A brighter future 
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. As the British Plastics Federation emphasises: “Plastic has done nothing wrong, it’s the way we mismanage plastics.”

In our desire to do the right thing, the challenge for organisations and individuals is not to eschew plastics in favour of less resource efficient alternatives, but to choose responsibly sourced materials with the lowest carbon footprint.

Sustainability and protective benefits of plastics 
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. 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 cleaning products, eliminating environmental leaching of cleaning chemicals and residue 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. 

Plastic waste sacks are also playing a significant role in helping to reduce the risk of Covid-19 spreading within households. Public Health England ‘guidance for households with possible coronavirus’ includes advice for cleaning and disposal of waste. It states that personal waste (such as used tissues) and disposable cleaning cloths can be stored securely within disposable rubbish bags. These bags should be placed into another bag, tied securely and kept separate from other waste. This should be put aside for at least 72 hours before being put in the usual external household waste bin. Other household waste can be disposed of as normal.

The lightweight characteristics of plastic also mean reduced fuel consumption, resulting in lower greenhouse gases. Our LowCO2t products, for example, are engineered to provide maximum performance using minimal resources. This not only helps to reduce the volume of plastic used and the energy used in manufacturing, but also to minimise greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in transportation through the supply chain. 

As a member of the British Plastics Federation, we support WRAP’s UK Plastics Pact, which has outlined an ambitious set of targets to create a circular economy for plastics. The aim is to eliminate all avoidable plastic packaging waste and make all plastic packaging reusable, recyclable, recycled, or compostable, by 2025.
Switching from plastic to alternative materials, such as paper, 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.

Effective segregation 
Recycling and re-use of materials starts with effective segregation of the different waste streams on site, such as paper, glass, plastic, and food waste, to avoid contamination. Unfortunately, items can often end up in the incorrect bin.  The value of paper, for example, is significantly reduced if it is contaminated with wet wastes such as food, and may even render it unrecyclable.

Practical steps that cleaning teams can take include ensuring there are enough recycling bins, that they are of a suitable size, clearly labelled and that the waste is frequently collected. From posters on walls with recycling information, to colour-coded bins and staff awareness-raising campaigns, there are endless opportunities to remind people about the benefits of recycling. 

Clarity needed on compostable claims
Confusion is added as some bags are being described as biodegradable, or compostable, when this is not always the case, for example oxo-degradable polythene products. In the context of its European plastics strategy, the EU has started a process to restrict the use of oxo-plastics. In the UK, the Advertising Standards Authority recently determined the use of the term biodegradable ”is misleading and has not been substantiated”, when used to described an oxo-degradable product.

In addition, the term compostable should only be used for the recycling application that they are designed for. Compostable bags are ideal for food and garden waste from client sites, where they compost alongside this material for future use. However, if compostable packaging is put in with waste for disposal in landfill, it will contribute to greenhouse gas emissions along with any other organic matter in landfill. 

Additionally, if compostable packaging is put into the recycling stream, it can contaminate the other materials, meaning that the whole batch cannot be recycled. So, it would not be appropriate for compostable bags to be used for the collection of other materials for recycling, as they are designed to decompose in a compost environment.

Life-cycle assessment approach
Used properly, plastic will continue to offer a convenient and cost-effective solution to many of modern day life’s issues, especially in the cleaning industry. The real debate shouldn’t be about making a choice between plastics and sustainability, but how we can use all resources more efficiently and help combat climate change. The carbon cost of all products must be taken into consideration across the whole life cycle assessment - if this was a consideration now, lightweight plastic packaging would not be ditched in favour of heavier, less energy-efficient materials. 

With the help of plastics, and emphasis on resource efficiency, improved litter management, and recycling infrastructure, we can better address the crucial issue of climate change.