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Featured Article: The Key to a Sustainable Future is Polythene

As featured in the Environment Industry Magazine Issue 21

Poly Scrap

Despite being the most reused material in the world, polythene gets bad press from  environmentalists.  Whether it is shops charging for polythene bags, Governments introducing bag taxes or seeking to ban them completely - polythene packaging  gets a raw deal when it comes to public opinion.

David Brimelow, managing director of Duo UK, puts the case for polythene and argues that it is time to take a more enlightened view.

The sustainable and future-proof plan to reduce polythene in landfill is available now.  The answer is to re-use it, recycle it, and produce something new, which is also capable of being recycled.   Dumping it in landfill is not environmentally friendly, nor is it cost effective and it is definitely not sustainable.

The UK uses over five million tonnes of plastics each year, of which an estimated 24 percent is recycled.  From bottles, to mailing bags - plastic is a valuable and finite resource.  It's a recyclable material and, after first use, it should be recycled - preferably into a product that can then be recycled again and again.  Given the current high price for oil, the economic value of used polythene is increasing, and this is a strong driver for increased recycling.

Not only are polythene bags lighter than their cardboard or paper packaging alternatives- they're also more durable, they have a longer life, and they take up less space in transit.  Furthermore, the cardboard and paper alternatives are themselves organic products whose recent high prices reflect the supply constraints and increasing sustainability costs.  These important, but often ignored, external factors unfairly influence the perception of polythene compared to other packaging materials.

Bio-degradable or compostable polythene has received a lot of media attention but the bottom line is that it still involves burying a valuable re-usable resource in the ground.  The reality is that the supposed "eco-friendly" option isn't actually that green a solution, given the need to continue extracting oil from the ground to make the compostable polythene. Furthermore, the Bio-degradable bags currently on the market will only degrade when exposed to specific environmental conditions, such as exposure to UV, or pressure or dampness.  They do not just disintegrate automatically in landfill.  That said, there is a place in the market for biodegradable additives, but the addition of the additives that provide the compostability actually contaminates the product and prevents the polythene being able to be recycled.

This is already having a negative effect on the volume of recyclable polythene available in the marketplace and increases the cost and availability of recycled pellet to meet the ever increasing demand for recycled content products.

Some packaging buyers are leading the way in the drive for more recycling and, as part of their corporate social responsibility initiatives, they are making a conscious effort to save their packaging waste from a destiny in landfill and at the same time reduce their carbon footprint.

E-tailers such as JD Williams' run in-house schemes to segregate packaging waste (polythene, paper, and card) in their fulfillment sites.  Duo, which manufactures polythene packaging for the firm, then collects the polythene waste when they deliver new products, and recycle it in their own reprocessing plant.  This is known as a closed loop recycling process.  This is mixed with scrap material produced during the manufacturing process, which is set aside to be used in the production of new JD Williams' mailing bags, via the closed loop recycling process.

Therefore, all JD Williams' mailing bags each include a percentage of recycled content that would have previously been destined for landfill.  This complies with their desire to achieve their CSR targets and reduces the company's carbon footprint.

From a supply chain perspective, recycling plastics, as part of a closed loop recycling programme, wins hands down over producing virgin product.  From public image preservation, to ensuring consumer and government demands are met, manufacturers need to be savvy about plastics and embrace the benefits of re-using it, rather than swapping to an alternative material which is perhaps mistakenly perceived to be more 'eco-friendly', such as paper or bio-degradable material.

The European Union Packaging Waste Directive recently called for the recovery of 50-65 percent of total packaging waste from any source.  The simplest way to reduce the amount of plastic used is to educate businesses and householders on more sustainable methods, such as the closed loop recycling, to reduce the amount of waste created by different materials.

Consumers using jute bags are not necessarily being as eco-friendly as they may think. An important fact quoted by a scientist on a recent BBC programme highlighted that a natural fibre shopping bag needs to be used 130 times to compensate for the extra energy required to manufacture it compared to a single use carrier bag. If you reuse your plastic carrier 10 times you would have to use an equivalent jute bag 1,300 times.

For a business it is just as simple; segregate waste to achieve optimum value for your scrap, which enables the waste to be easily recycled in closed loop recycling. Then promote your active green approach to waste management to your customers.

Bio-degradable packaging products are required to go to landfill and exposed to specific environments to start the decomposition process.  With landfill at a premium in the UK, many tonnes of polythene and other plastic materials are shipped abroad.  It has got to make sense to move away from the compostable option and move towards recycling more UK waste in the UK.  If polythene bags are recycled after use back to pellet form this material can be used to manufacture new packaging products and reduce greatly the volume of waste going to landfill in the first place.

The versatility and value of scrap polythene offers manufacturers the opportunity to implement "buy back" schemes, which allow business to dispose of their waste responsibly and recoup costs.  The manufacturer will then produce products with the inclusion of recycled material, which can also be recycled after use too.

In summary, polythene does not deserve the negative publicity it unjustly receives; what is needed is simply education about this lightweight and highly versatile material. Managed correctly, Polythene can work in harmony with the environment, easily becoming sustainable and future-proof, reducing the demand on landfill, finite oil resources and also heavy investment in 'so called' environmentally friendly alternatives. The answer to a more sustainable future is simple, closed loop recycling - with the plastic we have already manufactured, re-use it, recycle and produce something new which can itself be recycled.   It is a process readily available which is both socially responsible and cost effective.

David Brimelow is managing director of Duo Plastics UK

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