We can’t stop using plastic
Plastic in numerous - difficult to replace - applications accompanies our everyday life, and has a huge share in the global development leap. Global plastic production increased from 1.5 million tonnes in 1950 to almost 360 million tonnes in 2018. The reason for such a rapid increase in demand for plastics is due to their unique properties, which are absolutely competitive with substitutes, which we are often unaware of. A telling illustration of this can be the fact that in the last 20 years, as a result of the use of plastic, food waste has been reduced by 30%. Plastic is a guarantee of corrosion resistance in many machines and tools. The combination of low weight, high strength, and impact resistance has given a boost to the transport industry. As a result, we can safely deliver very-delicate products to very-distant places. Its low electrical and thermal conductivity has opened up new opportunities, including in the food, construction and pharmaceutical industries. Resistance to most chemicals and low specific gravity are features which have given plastics further advantages. Other important factors also include low price, the ease of forming, and the possibility of recycling.
Focusing on the packaging industry itself, it is important to know that today’s packaging production accounts for 1/3 of the total demand for plastics. Such high popularity is primarily due to the weight of the packaging in relation to the weight of the product. Packaging for 0.5 kg of margarine weighs only a dozen or so grams. There is no other such lightweight material which could provide the barrier, sterility, and mechanical strength required by the food industry throughout the entire logistical chain, including, e.g. freezing. Lightweight plastic packaging also contributes to fuel savings during transportation.
The packaging industry continues to come up with new technologies and new materials to extend the shelf life of products, while reducing the weight of packaging. In shops it is now possible to buy raw meat packaged in a new way. Manufacturers are switching from modified atmosphere technology (MAP), i.e. trays closed with transparent film, to so-called barrier shrink bags (BSB), i.e. packaging made of film adjacent to the meat over its entire surface. The average weight of MAP packaging is 30-40 g, and this type of packaging ensures a shelf life of up to 6 days. BSB packaging weighs about 3 g and extends shelf life to 30 days.
Plastics provide functionality unattainable by other materials. It is not possible to replace them with other materials without losing the benefits they provide. The use of plastics instead of alternative materials such as wood, steel, aluminium, and glass is also supported by environmental-footprint studies. They clearly show that alternative materials have an almost 4 times higher environmental footprint than plastics. The environmental footprint is determined by the Product Environmental Footprint method. It is a tool created and recommended by the European Commission in order to unify the way in which the environmental impact of industry is determined.
What has made plastics a hot topic in the current public debate? Is it a matter of the plastic itself, or of the increasing amount of unused waste?
The rapid increase in plastics production has not been counterbalanced by the development of a waste-management system and the sufficient expansion of the necessary infrastructure. There was no development of the technology for plastic-waste collection and the recovery of raw materials, following the increase in plastic production, in order to reuse them as fully valuable products. Deficiencies in this area have resulted in the loss of control of a large part of the waste stream.
One of the ideas for solving this problem is the concept of the circular economy (CE). The CE aims at closing the material-flow loop, while supporting the development of innovation in the fields of plastics processing and waste-management technologies. This change of approach is intended to turn waste into resources for other production processes, closing the industrial cycle loop, and minimising waste.
The industry has already started to make changes in order to adapt to the requirements of the CE. The use of eco-design principles for packaging, with the need for easy recycling in mind, is becoming more and more popular among food manufacturers. Recycling companies are investing in the development of new technologies. There are legal regulations governing the activities of the plastics industry, and work on regulations concerning the CE is in progress.
The CE concept also draws attention to the very-important role of consumers. These are the consumer’s decisions at the time of purchase which determine what packaging waste he or she will be dealing with. The way consumers deal with plastic waste depends on whether the waste will end up in the CE loop or pollute the environment, e.g. illegally burnt in a household stove or decomposing in nature for decades. It is the consumer who is responsible for the problem of environmental pollution. It should be stressed that it is inappropriate consumer behaviour which is the biggest source of environmental pollution, such as waste from coastal beaches. Therefore, in order to solve the problems with the amount of unmanaged plastic waste, it is so important to educate consumers about their role, both in the growing amount of plastic waste and the possibilities of its proper management – e.g. recycling. In addition, educated consumers, through their informed choices, can also influence packaging manufacturers, e.g. as to the amount of plastic used for packaging (overpacking) or by preferring packaging which is easier to separate and recycle.
The industry is not yet fully prepared for total plastic-waste treatment, although it is working hard on this. There are many good practices in the field of selective waste collection and treatment systems, as well as recycling technologies and infrastructure. Consumer choices and behaviour will remain a sensitive element in the implementation of the CE concept. It is therefore so important to place emphasis on education and awareness-raising in order to increase the willingness and ability of consumers to collect and separate plastic waste. It is also necessary to establish a system of incentives for responsible behaviour in order to increase the collection of plastic waste.
Michał Chełmecki Synthos S.A.