https://innovateuk.blog.gov.uk/2018/04/16/plastiphobia/

Plastiphobia?

I’m feeling rather of a villain of late, something an Innovation Lead at Innovate UK might not usually want to reveal.

Why? Because for over 30 years I’ve been involved in innovation with polymers and I wholeheartedly value them; yet on the other hand when I mention I’m involved with plastics for a living, I sometimes get a look along the lines of ‘you killed a baby whale…..’.

Crumpled plastic bottle

Plastic.  A valuable and versatile material

I’m regularly having to defend a valuable versatile material, when it’s often what we do (or don’t do) with plastics at end of life that’s the issue. If every gram of plastic packaging we manufactured were collected and reused or burnt at end of life, and none was left in our verges or made it to the oceans, I would not be writing this blog.

Science has always fascinated me, and during my degree a final year lecture piqued my curiosity of polymers.  Since then I’ve undertaken work on polymer modification and degradation mechanisms for my PhD, worked with natural rubber for the Malaysian government and developed polymer formulations for the medical industry.  Most recently I’ve been supporting the UK polymer community as Polymer Lead for the KTN and currently as an Innovation Lead in the Advanced Materials team at Innovate UK.

So I’m putting my (plastic coated) cards on the table, and admitting I think polymers and plastics are fantastic; I’ve chosen to spend my whole career with them after all.

Young girl dj with vinyl records

Safer, healthier, happier lives

Polymers enable us to live safer, healthier, happier and more connected lives. I certainly wouldn’t want to undergo medical treatment without flexible tubing, drive my car without tyres, give up my vinyls or CD’s, or go back to life without lightweight portable electronics - and those examples are just a handful of uses for polymers.

Last but not least if I asked you to remove all the polymer clothing from your body, and you were in public, would you?

Polymers can solve problems

Innovate UK has funded hundreds of polymer projects, over £55 million worth in the last seven years. These have included developing smart sorting processes for recycling packaging, developing products to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, flexible electronics, and novel polymers as repair mechanisms to increase the lifetime of infrastructures.

We’ve funded them because polymers can solve problems.

pile of plastic bottles

It’s the discarding of plastic that’s bad, not the material

But plastics are the current pariah of the materials world. We see them discarded in our environment and they harm our planet and its inhabitants because of the longevity of the material. However the material itself is used to reduce overall harm to the environment.

Plastic is lightweight and strong so we can use it in place of heavier materials. Without it we would be burning significantly more fossil fuels in transport, wasting value food resource from spoiling, and using more energy in food production. It’s the discarding of plastic that’s bad, not the material.

The majority of plastics we see discarded are from the packaging used to protect and market the foods and goods we consume, in fact 40% of all the plastic we process becomes packaging which is often single use. In the UK the average household disposes of 40kg of plastic packaging a year, and there is also commercial packaging to protect goods before they reach the store.

A constant drive exists to reduce packaging

Industry is already looking for ways to reduce the amount of plastics they and we use. Producers of goods do not want to spend any more than necessary protecting their goods as it makes them less profitable, so there is a constant drive for innovative design that brings down packaging weights.

The challenge lies in the complexity and amount of products that we consume. Despite the reductions in container weight (a washing up bottle now weighs around 40% less than it did in 1960) we are using so much more plastics than ever before. Our lifestyles have changed, we are all on the go, we want convenience and we like the amount of choices we have, it’s what marketing relies upon.

In the UK we are the highest consumers of processed food within the EU (more than 50% of our intake is processed) and processed food is, by nature, packaged; our lifestyle choices have increased the total volume of plastic packaging in the waste stream.

BOX OF PLASTIC RECYCLING

We need innovation to simplify plastic waste and improve recycling

The good news is that the plastic packaging we use can, in many cases, be recycled - the standard plastic milk bottle uses around 25% recycled content already for example. Technically there are solutions for all polymers to be recycled, but the practicality and economics of recycling all plastic packaging makes for a different story.

With the complexity of packaging types; pots, tubs, trays, bottles, packets, pouches, lids and films (which are often a mix of materials and very lightweight) which we currently use, we need innovation to simplify plastic waste and improve recycling technologies. Innovate UK is working closely with government to address this and welcomes applications for such innovation through both its Open Programme and the Plastics Innovation Fund.

Ideas to mitigate the levels of persistent plastic

Some ideas to mitigate the levels of persistent plastic in the environment that might be funded through our research funding could be those covering:

  • Innovative materials - e.g. developing compatibilizers to increase the levels of recycled polymer in the waste stream, edible packaging or biodegradable/compostable packaging
  • Recycling more efficiently - e.g. more specific and effective sorting mechanisms for polymer packaging types or processes to make cleaner recyclate that can be used in higher value applications
  • Product design - packaging that consists of a single polymer but has multi-functional packaging properties, reusable packaging or packaging made of easily recyclable polymer material
  • Behavioural - innovative processes to encourage consumers to recycle or reuse packaging such as refillable takeaway box schemes or my personal favourite Gumdrop which is a closed loop process for recycling used chewing gum

I don’t think of plastic as waste but as a valuable resource.  They say that oil is liquid gold and that plastic is solid oil, so for me that makes plastic solid gold!

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11 comments

  1. Comment by Stella Job posted on

    Nice one, Sally!

    Reply
    • Replies to Stella Job>

      Comment by Sally Beken posted on

      I felt pressed to write this after a visit to my parents and my Mum said 'Plastics are bad aren't they? '
      They are becoming demonised in the public eye 🙁

      Reply
      • Replies to Sally Beken>

        Comment by paris posted on

        Recycling is not the solution, recycling means more consumers using more plastic and then try to teach them to recycle, The solution in my eyes is only one, the simple one. Change the way we live and what we consume, when there is no demand for plastic then will be no plastic. After losing a few members of my close family to cancer it made me think twice to use plastic. Hence now I have opened a small company producing alternative utensils products to plastic and here it is if you have a moment https://mylittlepanda.co.uk/

        Reply
  2. Comment by Rod Fox posted on

    At last recognition of something I have been saying for more years than I can remember. Plastic packaging waste is a valuable resource to be nurtured rather than demonised. While the media has been right to highlight the problem of plastic in our oceans and littering our streets they have done little to find out if anybody has sustainable solutions that recognise that the plastic waste generated each year in the UK, like the rest of the world, can be used in place of tropical hardwood in the form of structurally engineered, heavy-duty products to be used in construction of sea defences, sea and harbour walls, inland as drainage channels, weirs, sluice gates and flood defences, to name but a few. Additionally as a safe and longer lasting alternative to using harmful creosote to treat softwood rail sleepers and utility poles. When used in place of concrete as road kerbs their manufacture saves up to 95% of the carbon emissions associated with concrete production. The products use plastic bags, shrink and stretch film, metallised crisp packets, washing up and shampoo bottles and a host of other products made from polythene and polypropylene. In other words all the plastic packaging that most think cannot be recycled. These durable, safe products have been in use for nearly 50 years and now with the technology we have developed the price is comparable to hardwood, treated softwood and concrete and are recyclable at the end of a very long service life.

    Reply
  3. Comment by Martin Clemesha posted on

    As long as fossil fuels are being used for energy, using hard to recycle plastics for energy is better than landfill. And by the way, polyethylene from renewable ressources and with a negative footprint is already available http://www.braskem.com/greenplastic

    Reply
    • Replies to Martin Clemesha>

      Comment by Sally Beken posted on

      Thanks Martin. I know of Braskem. The more renewable solutions the better and there is a great video re the the oil I like to recommend (even though its targeted at kids) https://youtu.be/2vnWrNEO5DU

      Reply
  4. Comment by Roger Wise posted on

    Good Article Sally. Like you, I have spent a lot of my career on plastics and wouldn't be without them.
    Perhaps the development of a campaign to minimise consumption of "Single use" plastics might be a positive step since it might promote valuable material recycling technologies.

    Reply
  5. Comment by Karnik Tarverdi posted on

    Hi Sally
    Well written; I whole hartedley approve of your statement, I at Brunel am also beating the plastics drum. It is not the polymers to blame but how one uses/misuses this valuable resource/commodity which has saved thousands of lives and preserved our food for longer periods.

    Reply
  6. Comment by Elena Onyshchenko posted on

    Thank you Sally. Very informative and relevant. We need innovative solutions to solve global problems associated with polymer waste. I like your ideas.

    Reply
  7. Comment by David Shaw posted on

    Nice piece, Sally

    I think the plastics industry is going to face increasing negative publicity over this. You've made a great start on explaining the benefits of plastics.

    I try to say that the barrier properties of plastic films - and multi-layer plastic films - preserve food for much longer, so reduce waste of other kinds. But it's a tough sell to people who don't really want to understand.

    The message is getting stronger out there: plastics are killing our seas.

    First, I think we need quantifiable data on how much plastic is in the oceans; how it gets there - through watercourses, disposal at sea and other routes, and the rate at which is breaks down into micro-particles.

    Until the plastics industry has this data, it's never going to be able to respond adequately to the strong negative emotional reaction of people to the very real damage that is being done to marine wildlife.

    Reply
  8. Comment by Barry Turner posted on

    Sally, We are all frustrated by the war being waged on Plastic by ill informed media, NGOs,and politicians and I thankyou for standing up and making a case for the industry.

    We all need to remind consumers that they have a significant part to say in the correct disposal of Plastics at end of life and help us get this valuable material back so we can put it to work again.

    Reply

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