Thursday, August 13, 2020

Plastic Free July – or what have plastics ever done for us?

Barry Twigg, Chief Executive at National Flexible, responds to the ‘Plastic Fee July’ movement by breaking down five key reasons why refusing single-use plastic is a bad idea.

The ‘Plastic Free July’ campaign required everyone to refuse to accept any ‘Single Use Plastic’ during the month of July. Therefore, in fairness to the promoters of this campaign, I felt it would be helpful to highlight the consequences of such a refusal and the reasons why no-one should take this advice, for the following 5 easily understood reasons.

1) PPE – use of plastic

At the height of the Pandemic in the UK, the NHS was using 1 billion pieces per week of ‘Single Use Plastic’. These included gowns, shoe coverings, masks, visors, gloves, not to mention billions of packs of anti-bacterial wipes. Another 28 billion pieces of PPE have just been ordered by the NHS (80% from China) all are “Single Use Plastic”.

According to the WHO, there have been over 9 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in 188 countries worldwide. Currently, many of these countries are scouring the World for their own supply of ‘Single Use Plastic’ PPE. It is anticipated that the demand for plastic fibre for face masks and anti-bacterial wipes, will continue to escalate Worldwide until an effective vaccine is discovered.

2) Pharmaceutical use of plastic

In the UK, some 30 million people per day take tablets. Around 25% of those over 65 (3 million people) are estimated to be taking at least 5 prescription drugs per day! Virtually all of these tablets come, in one form or another, in ‘Single Use Plastics’.

Add to these the millions of packs of creams, salves, ointments and medicines which are all supplied in single use tubes and plastic bottles and we get some appreciation of how many of our older population and those suffering from illness, rely every day on ‘Single Use Plastic’ for their medication.

3) Food waste – benefits of plastic

According to the UN, some 35-50% of all food produced worldwide is wasted, circa 1.3 billion tonnes. This figure reduces rapidly as countries develop economically and more food packaging is introduced. This is necessary to facilitate more hygienic handling, storage and distribution, along with increasing the shelf life of perishable foods.

Nevertheless, the UK still wastes some 10 million TPA of food at an estimated cost of £10 billion.

Plastic packaging is essential to extend shelf life of food, some notable examples are:

  • Bananas loose, shelf life 15 days – packaged 36 days;
  • Beef loose, shelf life 14 days – packaged 23 days;
  • Chicken (sliced) loose, shelf life 7 days – packaged 20 days;
  • Cucumber (cut) loose, shelf life 3 days – packaged 14 days etc, etc.

To give these figures some context, we consume 1.15 million TPA of bananas. This would simply not be possible without them being wrapped in transit, in order to give them sufficient shelf life for their distribution and sale.

4) Global warming (CO2 emissions) – benefits of plastic

Multiple lifecycle analyses from all around the World highlight that all the alternative packaging materials to plastic, including paper, board, glass or aluminium /tin, consume more of the Earth’s resources and generate more CO2 emissions in their usage and manufacture than plastic. A 2019 report, from the European Institute of Energy & Environmental Research concluded:

‘Replacing alternative packaging materials with plastic would reduce the EU’s carbon emissions from packaging by circa 22 million tonnes P.A. (30%) – even if none of the plastic was recycled’.

As an example,  any supermarket changing to paper bags from plastic bags has a negative environmental effect of some 90%, due to the extra energy used (x2) and extra water (x 12) in their manufacture and distribution (2015 life cycle analysis assessment from the Scottish Government). Manufacturing glass and aluminium are highly energy intensive processes with resultant high CO₂ emissions. Thus, once again, adding to Global Warming.

5) Packaging waste – benefits of plastic 

Plastic is lightweight, flexible, inert, low cost and infinitely variable in its end use. For example, a glass milk bottle weighs circa 460g, 25 times heavier than its plastic equivalent. It is produced and transported ‘flat’ and only inflated on filling enabling one HG vehicle carrying plastic bottles to replace 14 similar HG vehicles carrying glass.

A paper bag is at least 4 times heavier than its plastic equivalent, whilst a cardboard container is up to 8-10 times heavier than its plastic counterpart. Whilst aluminium does not have such a large weight disadvantage, it is estimated there are 2.5 billion tonnes of untreatable toxic sludge located around the World (mostly in China) as a by-product of aluminium manufacture.

So, that’s it. What has plastic ever done for us?

  1. Plastic is saving lives every day all over the World in the fight against the Coronavirus
  2. Plastic is enabling portion-controlled medication and safe storage of pharmaceuticals products all around the World
  3. Plastic is reducing food waste all around the World by extending shelf life
  4. Plastic is reducing global warming worldwide by replacing energy intensive alternative materials
  5. Plastic is reducing packaging waste worldwide due to being lightweight and inherently strong

And for good measure, plastic does not pollute the Oceans, people do, yet plastic gets the blame. Interestingly, the UK contribution to plastic pollution in the oceans is just 0.2%, mostly from fishing gear. Yet we are given the impression we dump plastic in the oceans!

Finally, plastic is 100% recyclable, either mechanically or chemically and whilst the UK Plastic Industry paid £280 million in 2019 for collection and recycling of waste plastic, the Environment Agency fails to direct this money into more recycling facilities preferring instead to allow our plastic waste to be exported.

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