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IES Webinar: Good plastic, bad plastic?


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Over the past few years numerous campaigns have attempted to reduce our reliance on plastic. Recently attention has moved from supermarket plastic bags to drink straws and bottle manufacturers.

But has plastic been unfairly demonised? Might bio-derived, biodegradable plastics be kinder to the environment and acceptable to consumers or do these alternatives do more harm than good?

In this webinar, Julie Hill, explores the dilemmas, myths, science and unanswered questions surrounding our use of plastics, drawing on work done by the Green Alliance and WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme).

Published in: Environment
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IES Webinar: Good plastic, bad plastic?

  1. 1. Good Plastic, Bad Plastic? Julie Hill IES Webinar 9th November 2017
  2. 2. What I’d like this session to do: • Give a sense of the dilemmas we have in shaping the future of plastics • Introduce Green Alliance and WRAP work to explore the potential future of plastics • Pose the research questions that fall out of that work • Learn your views
  3. 3. Q: When was the first synthetic plastic invented?
  4. 4. Plastic – the new kid on the block 1907: Bakelite 1912: Cellophane 1926: PVC 1930: Neoprene 1931: Victrolac (Vinyl for records) 1933: Polyethylene 1935: Nylon 1938: Teflon 1941: PET 1950: Polyester 1951: Polypropylene 1954: Expanded polystyrene 1960s: HDPE bottles start to replace glass 1965: Kevlar
  5. 5. What’s good about plastic? • Comes in many different types • Can take a huge variety forms • Can be endlessly combined • Durable • Light and easy to transport • Cheap
  6. 6. What’s bad about plastic? • Comes in many different types • Can take a huge variety forms • Can be endlessly combined • Durable • Light and easy to transport • Cheap
  7. 7. So what should we do with plastics?
  8. 8. WRAP and the circular economy A circular economy is an alternative to a traditional linear economy (make, use, dispose) in which we keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them whilst in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life.
  9. 9. A circular economy preserves economic and environmental value
  10. 10. Dilemma: recover or degrade?
  11. 11. Source: Plastic Europe, Berlin, August 2016 European recycling rates Growing plastic demand
  12. 12. Q: Roughly what % of plastic is recycled in Europe?
  13. 13. ‘10 things you didn't know you can recycle’
  14. 14. Improving recovery rates in UK in future likely to hinge on: • Less confused consumers • Greater emphasis on including business waste • Smaller range of plastics, to increase scale • Less mixing of types, to get purer streams • ‘Market pull’ – demand for recycled content • Greater rate of re-use (perhaps deposit schemes)
  15. 15. Concluded that biodegradable plastics ‘would not bring about a significant decrease in either the quantity of plastics entering the ocean or the risk of physical and chemical impacts on the marine environment’. Because: - Most are designed to degrade in industrial conditions, with higher temperatures - Those easily degrading (eg used for fishing tackle) only useful for specific applications
  16. 16. What about packaging? Would it help to make it biodegradable?
  17. 17. Criteria for Compostable Packaging (2010) • Material should not cut across or disrupt established recycling streams for conventional plastics • Material needs to be easily recognisable as compostable • The logic of its use needs to be evident, and aligned with consumer expectations • Ideally the material should be home compostable
  18. 18. The WRAP perspective • Still a lot of fundamental science to be done on degradation in a range of environments – warm and cold. • Most biodegradeable plastics need oxygen to degrade, so it does not work well in anaerobic digestion (AD). • No standard that covers biodegradability in all environments. • Waste valorisation is a key goal – monomers that can find a market in new products.
  19. 19. Dilemma: How to get future plastics to go in the right direction?
  20. 20. Bioplastics: circular economy potential? Bioplastic Superior recyclability (depolymerisation) Waste feedstock Biodegradable? Polylactic acid (PLA) Polyethylene Furanoate (PEF) Polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA/PHB) Polyvinylalcohol (PVA/PVOH) Polybutylene succinate (PBS)
  21. 21. Some research questions Technical: • Possibilities for utilising bio-wastes for plastic feedstock • Making biodegradation work in a range of environments • Reducing the number of polymers in play while retaining functionality Market: • Economic ways of producing monomers from secondary plastics that can find a market in new products. Behavioural: • Effective messaging to consumers and businesses that ensures plastic materials are sent down the right route
  22. 22. Thank you – look forward to questions and views.
  23. 23. Questions asked Question Answer Why do authorities never use the number system for recycling? The numbers indicate what the material is, but not whether the local authority has an available means of recycling it, hence the On-Pack Recycling Label (OPRL) initiative: Most plastic recycling labels are very small & hard to read. If they are made much larger and clearer would this help consumers? The On-pack Recycling Label scheme was designed to address this problem, and all feedback welcome: Should biodegradable plastics be collected with other plastics for recycling and then sorted to go down right route or would biodegradable plastics be collected via another route? This might be physically possible, but the extra transport and kit might make it economically unviable. Demand for secondary plastics seems to be a challenge - manufacturers only really want PET or HDPE ... what can be done to increase demands for secondary materials in plastics? Demand fluctuates for all secondary plastics. Getting consistent good quality in the secondary materials is a key factor, and that goes back to improved collection methods and sorting. Suggestions for ways to boost demand have included a voluntary or mandatory level of recycled content in packaging (eg Coca Cola’s commitment to using 50% secondary PET – see http://www.coca- And/or a levy on packaging that isn’t recyclable, or doesn’t include recycled content. Plastic bags a few years ago, straws are rightfully in the firing line at the moment , what's the other low hanging fruit There has been talk of taxing single use plastics such as coffee cups and drinks bottles. The isssue with ocean plastics appears to be getting so acute the problem will not wait for better recycling routes. Any ideas on how to tackle ocean plastics? Green Alliance has some suggestions: also the UN: and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation: Will Brexit change plastic recycling regulations/ opportunities The UK may or may not be subject to the EU’s forthcoming Circular Economy Package, depending on the timing, but I would hope that we would want to do well on re-use and recycling anyway, because of the great economic and jobs benefits to be had in establishing new UK businesses. See With China stopping import of plastic waste, will Europe upgrade their infrastructure to recycle more or This probably depends on the economics, but clearly it is a great potential opportunity to upgrade the recycling and establish UK infrastructure.