Plastic: polluter or protector?

According to the popular press, plastic packaging is an evil polluter. And at the centre of this myth lie the frenzied attacks on plastic bags. Whilst science will always prove the opposite, the media perpetuates the belief  that the environment would be better off if we could live without any plastic at all – returning to a society where there is a small corner shop within walking distance and where we can buy all our goods loose and cook them on the same day. But life isn’t like that any more. Our population has exploded. We’re working harder, moving faster, living longer and, against all the odds, we are getting better quality food and household goods at better value. It’s not an exaggeration to say that society’s major advances have been made easier because of our ability to pack in plastic. In fact ‘plastics make it possible’.

In spite of the constant clamour of the media, fired by evangelistic plastic-free parish councils, plastic bags of all types are not just the most convenient, low-cost, durable and efficient way of carrying and protecting goods – they are also the most environmentally-effective. They are a lightweight, low-volume, high strength environmental miracle that meets every aspect of the accepted ‘best practice’ hierarchy preached by environmentalists – reduce, re-use and recycle. Plastic bags offer all of these options in abundance. At the start point, plastic is an excellent ‘reduce’ material because – of all the alternatives – it reduces the amount of energy and resource going into a product. Effectively plastic uses minimal resources at every stage of its life-cycle. In its most common formulation – for polythene bags – it makes excellent use of by-products of the oil refining process by utilising, for example, ethylene and naphtha.

At the second level of environmental best practice, most plastic carrier bags are eminently re-usable. In fact, DEFRA research shows that around 80 percent of households re-use their carrier bags for everything from bin bags to pet waste collection. And finally, all plastic is easily recyclable – it is only the economics of collection, sorting and cleaning that are a barrier to recycling most everyday plastic like food and produce bags. As a last resort, and a far better option than landfill, plastics of all types can make a significant contribution to the fourth ‘law’ of best practice which is ‘recover’. In fact, a single plastic bottle, in a clean-burn ‘Energy from Waste’ plant will provide  enough electricity to keep a 60 watt light bulb burning for one-and-a-half hours.

The problem with most of the environmental attacks on plastic bags is that they are confusing the technologies and lifestyles of fifty years ago with the reality way we live today. In the 1960s spending on food accounted for 26 percent of our household expenditure. Today it has fallen to around 15 percent. Fifty years ago the average shop stocked around 2,000 product lines.  Today our local supermarket gives us a choice of around 40,000 products. In the same timescales, the number of people in the UK aged over 85 has doubled. We have more single person households and family members eat different foods at different times in different parts of the house. The average meal in the 1930s took two-and-a-half hours to prepare compared with 15 minutes today. So we need food that is ready to cook, easier to cook, available in smaller portions, and we need better ways of preserving our food and keeping it fresher for longer. In all of these challenges, the humble plastic bag is the best environmental choice we can make.

Another big barrier to people’s perceptions of plastic as a twentieth century miracle material is that it isn’t just one material. The common term ‘plastic’ covers an entire family of complex polymers and co-polymers, substrates, laminates and packaging methods all developed to protect and preserve for the benefit of society and public health. As an extra reassurance, all of these polymers comply with stringent regulation on food contact.

To illustrate dramatically the difference plastic packaging makes in the role of protection and preservation we should consider that in those parts of the world where modern packaging does not exist, more than 50 percent of all food is wasted between harvest and table. In the developed world which uses sophisticated packaging and distribution systems, the loss falls to less than three percent. This is where, as a converting industry, every one of us should be shouting the benefits of plastic from the rooftops. And that is also one of the big reasons why a trade association like the Packaging and Films Association exists – as a voice for our industry.

The good news is that we have the truth on facts on our side. Research shows that without flexible plastic films and foils, the total weight of packaging would increase fourfold, the cost we pay for packaging would double and the volume of waste packaging would go up 60 percent. The consequential environmental impacts would greatly increase transportation and distribution impacts with a vast increase in carcinogenic exhaust fumes as well as increasing packaging waste going to landfill. It should also be remembered that only around four percent of oil is used as the feedstock to make all the plastics we need around the globe.

Of course, there are issues such as litter and marine debris, but these have proved to be wildly exaggerated in order to capture headlines. First and foremost, these are issues of social responsibility issue and would never be resolved by banning or legislating plastic bags as some ill-advised activists continue to advocate.

Perhaps most importantly, plastic holds the greatest promise of continual evolution as science continues to find innovative applications for this remarkably flexible material. Plastic packaging began as simple food wrapping to replace waxed paper but very rapidly evolved. Before long, we were able to ‘boil in the bag’ and microwave in the plastic tray. We created modified atmosphere and controlled atmosphere packaging to prolong shelf life whilst preserving food in excellent condition. We can now buy our rice, soup and pet food in stand up plastic pouches which massively cut down on transportation and are easy to open.

For the future, there are many exciting innovations already promising further step changes in plastic packaging technology. We now have ‘breathable’ films manufactured with microscopic honeycombed fractures which allow fresh produce like fruit, vegetables and flowers to create their own in-pack climate – staying fresher for longer in a natural way. When we consider that tonnes of flowers are regularly air-freighted to the UK from Africa, such packaging has unimaginable environmental benefits if it allows sea freight as an alternative. Another innovation is the invention of a pack which acts as a ‘pressure cooker’ when heated thus steaming the food and keeping all the nutrition in. In this way, the pack is the protector, preserver and the cooking utensil – all in one.

Other developments include time indicator and temperature sensitive packaging as a response to ever-increasing quality and food safety demands. Such packaging is able to react to changes in temperature or storage conditions – for example, giving a visual indication of food deterioration as a result of a faulty refrigerator or showing if a product has reached unacceptable temperatures during transit. We are now developing ‘smart’ packaging – for example, incorporating a minute RFID (radio frequency identification) microchip which can communicate with a suitable receiver. Such packaging could even turn an oven on to the right temperature and cook the product for the perfect cooking time. In the security sector, plastic bags can now contain track-and-trace chips which can lead security teams to stolen goods and, in pharmaceuticals, similar packaging could transmit a signal indicating precisely when the medication has been opened and if the correct dosage has been taken. We also have special formulations, additives and coatings in plastic packaging, for example to overcome electrostatic damage or cut out damaging light emissions for sensitive electronic components.

In all these ways, the plastic packaging industry is reflecting and responding to society’s needs. Even the humblest plastic bag is part of this evolution – part of the solution rather than – as is so aften claimed – part of the problem. Plastic packaging is capable of so many things and it is the clever conversion of the raw material which brings rewards to society, reducing food waste, reducing the overall amount of packaging required, reducing total environmental impacts and reducing the risk of public health problems from product contamination. Every employee of every business that  makes plastic products should rise to the challenge of fantastic plastic.



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