Myths or Reality?

How much do you think you know about plastic and recycling?
Are we being fooled?

For some years now, plastic has been portrayed as the mother of all evils. Responsible for the devastation of our planet, or at least in part the destroyer of ocean habitats and species. It’s a villain that has become a necessary evil in modern day life and has enhanced our standard of living, so how can we replace or remove its usage, when demand for it remains so high? There are many misconceptions about plastics and in our latest blog we aim to redress the imbalance and tackle some of the myths about plastic and recycling.

Six Myths Explained

Let’s be clear, solutions are required to reduce the mounting issue of plastic, but are we being duped into packaging our products in materials that will still end up in landfill? In 2018  global production of plastic reached 359 million metric tonnes, 62 million tonnes of which were generated in Europe, with China being responsible for a quarter of the total figure. It’s production has overtaken other natural materials, such as wood, metal and glass and now companies are looking at alternatives to plastic that are more sustainable and can be recycled, but sometimes the solutions are not reaping their true benefits.

Is Biodegradable Plastic Best?
There has been a sharp uptake of bio-plastic usage due to it being biodegradable, compostable and sustainable, but did you know that out of the 2.11 million tonnes of bio-plastic generated each year, 65% is destined for the packaging industry?  However, in the UK very little compostable packaging is industrially composted. According to Richard Kirkman of Veolia, a UK waste service, only some coffee cups and starch-based food bags are being processed, because most bioplastics are not breaking down within the required 12 weeks or not being screened out at the sorting process, thus most compostable packaging is going to landfill. It’s also a sad fact, that when it comes to composting techniques, such as aerobic digestion, biodegradable and compostable packaging won’t reduce to pulp.

So, what’s to be done? There are some plant-based plastics that mimic the fossil-fuelled PET’s, that can be recycled: polyethylene terephthalate. It is strong, durable and absorbs very little water and can be recycled into carpets. RPET (recycled polyethylene terephthalate) is the most widely recycled form of plastic and results in lower energy, lower cost and reduced environmental impact. It’s an alternative that would take 0.02% of global agricultural areas to produce the required grain to match bioplastics currently being used, but it’s impact at this stage is still unclear, as only 8.4 million tonnes of plastic was recycled in Europe in 2016.

We should STOP using plastic?
Are all plastics bad? Would complete removal of plastic from packaging solve our problems or simply add to them? According to the British Plastics Federation, 50% of products manufactured in Europe are packed in plastic, but only 17% of  total packaging materials used are plastic. Somehow there is another 83% of packaging being undiscussed….
What about the ones used in medicine or the multi-use polymers? The food Industry uses plastic to keep food fresh and some alternatives simply can’t replace the versatility of plastic (the humble cucumber loses moisture when packaging in anything else and grapes rot when not stored in plastic baskets). These are sound reasons for keeping plastic around, however, when the average household wastes on average £810 per year, taking away plastic could result in greater waste. Of course another way to address the issue would be to purchase those fresh foods daily, rather than relying on a weekly shop, as so many do. 

If it says ‘Recyclable’, it will be recycled.
Not everything in life is how we see it. A package may say ‘widely recycled’ but food containers, such as pizza boxes can not be recycled when spoiled with grease and food. Pre-made sandwiches are packaged in cardboard containers, with film windows; these windows and mayonnaise must be removed prior to recycling. Failure to remove these contaminants will compromise the packages ability to become pulp at the papermill and result in increased numbers  of packaging waste ending up in landfill. Plastic could be the solution, if made from PET, as this could then be recycled, however, purchasing food fresh would remove the need to use so-called recyclable cardboard, even if it is made from 80% recycled cardboard and 20% FSC pulp.

Are we focussed on materials or design?
In recent years companies and consumers have been focussed on the materials they use in packaging, rather than the functionality of the design and whether it can be reused. If the packaging being produced isn’t being successfully recycled, then it may be worth considering if the design of the packaging is facilitating what consumers and companies need. 

A thoughtful design can reduce packaging and make use of recycling and reuse messages. In the food industry, ready made meals often come with a black plastic tray; these can not be recycled due to food contamination not being clearly visible, therefore, clear or white PET trays would offer a more satisfactory solution. However, whether packaging can be recycled or not should always be communicated clearly and companies should think about their target audience, for example,  when using QR codes as their favoured method they should consider if elderly people have the technology at their disposal to see the information manufacturers wish to communicate.

Other materials are better for the environment.
It is a common belief that aluminium, glass and paper are eco-friendly alternatives to plastic. They are instantly recognisable as recyclable but in a 2011 report by Denkstatt, all types of plastic were compared to the key alternatives: steel, aluminium, glass, cardboard, etc. The results were surprising…. If these substitutes were used instead of plastic, packaging mass would increase by a factor of 3.6 and energy by a factor of 2.2 (which is the equivalent of 20 million heated homes). Not only that, the Northern Irish Assembly reported that to produce paper it takes four times more energy than plastic. Thus, as imperfect as polymer is for the environment, it can do the same as all the alternatives with significantly less material mass per unit and takes 91% less energy to recycle a kilo of plastic, compared to a kilo of paper.

Does plastic still hold value in modern times?
Seen as the villain to many, plastic is still a durable packaging currency in many quarters, such as the food industry. It’s problems come with the methods of disposal. Not enough consumers are recycling, despite the figures increasing by 75% over the last ten years. With 26 million tonnes of plastic being produced in the EU, we are still only recycling 30% of what we produce. There is some good news though; 60% of plastic bottles are being recovered,  but what of the other 40%? One possible solution would be the introduction of deposit schemes to close the deficit; receiving payment for returned items could encourage consumers to recycle more.

It is safe to say that the problems we are experiencing now have come as a result of mismanagement of a resource that has so much to offer but has become twisted out of shape. Some of the solutions being offered up are sustainable solutions, but come at a cost. Recycling may use more energy or may not be happening at all in some cases and consumers are being duped into believing that purchasing eco-friendly products is the answer to a deeply complex issue. At allpack® we have been supplying packaging products to the UK and Europe for twenty five years, but we have also grown to embrace the environmental issues that face each and every one of us. What is worth considering is if the complete elimination of plastic is really the answer? Perhaps we should consider if its use should be made easier? Either way we need to pave the way to clearer solutions and if plastic is to remain a staple ingredient of packaging, look at ways in which it can be recycled effectively. To book a free no-obligation consultation with a packaging expert, contact us today.

[Six Common Plastic Packaging and Recycling Myths: .
Vella: 12 March 2019]