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27th April 2021

Are Plastics really that bad?

Written by Kevin Beamon, Director at Advance Bunzl

I believe globally we will have many difficult decisions to make and one of the most difficult will be trying to balance the carbon emissions 50% net zero target by 2030 set by Governments and the elimination of plastics target set by many organisations. By reducing plastics you may well inadvertently increase the carbon footprint. For example, the average plastic drinks bottle weighs 18gms and its glass equivalent would weigh between 190gm and 250gm. Therefore, the carbon footprint when distributing glass bottles would be significantly higher but the reduction in plastics target would have been achieved.

The biggest problem is that plastics are actually very good at what they do, particularly in reducing food waste by keeping food fresher for longer. They are also cheap, lightweight and adaptable.

Many more people are starting to qualify their opinion on plastics to “we are not against plastics, just the littering of plastics.”

This actually makes sense and the Single Use Plastics (SUP) legislation that came into force last October in the UK and addresses part of the problem but it only controls plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds. Clearly on our streets and in the countryside and oceans we see a considerable amount of plastic litter the most noticeable being plastic bottles. But where is the legislation on plastic bottles I here you say.

Well it is there. According to the SUP Directive, Member States will have to ensure that beverage bottles with a capacity of up to three litres (including their caps and lids) are collected separately for recycling, with a 77% target by 2025, and a 90% target by 2029. There are also measures to change the percentage content of recycled PET of bottles to 25% in 2025 but only a modest increase to 30% recycled by 2030.

We have now bought into the equation recycling of plastics. Much of the labelling says it is recyclable but how much is actually recycled. In 2013, globally 78 million tonnes of plastic was produced but only 14% was collected for recycling. 4% was lost in the recycling process so only 10% was actually recycled. In 2017 the Guardian reported that it was only 9% so there has been no real improvement in recycling and the targets set to use extra recycled content are really not that far away and would seem difficult to achieve.

So what is the problem and why is it so difficult to recycle?

The answer as always is cost. Dependent on the cost of oil, recycled plastic is between 32% and 80% more expensive and although the consumer wants to do the right thing when it comes down to it, do they want to pay extra to do the right thing. The cost is evidenced by the following quote:-

“But according to experts it is now cheaper for major manufacturers to use new plastic. A report from S&P Global Platts, a commodity market specialist, revealed that recycled plastic now costs an extra $72 (£57) a tonne compared with newly made plastic.13 Oct 2019”

It is also not that easy to recycle plastics. For mechanical recycling the mixing of plastics is a problem. It not only has to be collected it then has to be sorted in to its own family PE, PP, PET, HDPE etc. Once sorted it is then “chipped” into granules which then become the raw material to be used by melting and reforming into new products. The problem is that this type of recycling cannot be used for food packaging as it might be contaminated. It is often reformed into park benches or furniture. This is good and better than nothing but does it really take us forward?

So, is there an actual recycling solution?

Yes, there is a process and it is called Pyrolysis. This process, when used with plastics, turns them into oil, gas or diesel fuel. Pyrolysis occurs when organic materials are heated to high temperatures in the absence of oxygen, the plastic is unable to burn so it returns to its molecular state.

What is remarkable about this process is that you can mix plastics because the process breaks down the plastic to its molecular level and all plastics are oil based. That means the oil generated from this recycling process can be re-used into food packaging. I understand that plastics are not infinitely recyclable even with this process but if you introduce approximately 10% of virgin oil it overcomes this problem. To me this chemical recycling has the potential to be the ideal solution but it needs to be scaled up to be commercially viable. The trouble is that it is not a continuous process and can only be achieved in batches. (sealed Vats to eliminate oxygen). I believe that rather than invest in targets and the policing of targets, governments should invest or maybe initially subsidise this practical solution. If you can improve the process commercially then basic economics will ensure that it will be taken up by the private sector and the recycling of plastics will increase significantly.

One of Advanced Bunzl’s European associates is a partner in this exciting project with a multinational oil producer SABIC, who are the lead partner with other multinationals. At first glance you might be sceptical but they are the perfect partner. You need 10% virgin oil in the process and the oil producers will need to become the recyclers if there is a global restriction on fossil fuels.

I will finish this article here with the good news of a potentially ideal solution for the true recycling of plastics. Let’s all hope that as with the coronavirus, science will prevail.

Kevin Beamon

Director Advance Bunzl or telephone 01622 208155

Advance Bunzl has been established nearly 40 years, specialising in the supply of self adhesive labels. In 2005 Advance Bunzl were acquired by Grafham Holdings group of companies and by early 2006 Advance Bunzl sales office and production facilities were merged into the same building with Hovat Ltd. As a major supplier of labels, we have considerable experience in the requirements of the industry and fully understand the service and quality levels required.

The variety of machinery that we have at our disposal within our site at Larkfield, Maidstone and the recently established strategic partnerships with European manufacturers has enabled us to extend our product range offering the complete labelling solution. Our experienced studio, sales and technical staff can give guidance and offer suggestions to most of your design, application and product enhancement problems.