Fighting the Coronavirus has increased the need for plastic. Personal Protective Equipment for key workers, disposable gloves, extra packaging to seal our food deliveries, even cutlery in hermetically sealed bags seem more appealing as we try and protect ourselves from contagion. Plastic of course, is one of the most recyclable materials in the world, so how might our view on its use be altered as we enter an era punctuated by Covid-19?

The following article was written for our April edition published on the first day of the UK lockdown.

Bronwen Jameson, external affairs manager at Recycling Technologies in Swindon, works to raise awareness of the technology that’s on offer to accelerate the evolution of plastic into a more sustainable material. She works with governments, NGOs, supply chain partners and trade bodies with the aim of changing the landscape of recycling so that decisions and policy may be based on emerging solutions as well as ‘business as usual’. Here she explains how not using plastic may in fact be more harmful to the environment.

Plastic was first created by US amateur inventor John Wesley Hyatt in the 1860s. He took up a challenge with a $10,000 reward, to find an alternative material to ivory for making billiard balls. Ivory was becoming scarce and killing elephants in their thousands for their tusks was creating public outcry – something needed to be done to protect wildlife.

Now over 150 years later, the tables have turned on this wonder material plastic, and plastic waste in particular. The BBC’s Blue Planet highlighted significant negative effects on the natural world of our current ‘make, use, dispose’ economy, where we use materials, sometimes for very short periods of time, then throw them away. Clearly we need to use our world’s resources more efficiently and protect our environment.

Is the answer to ban or stop using plastics? In many situations and in the spirit of the 3Rs, which prioritises ‘reduce and re-use’ over ‘recycle’ this may be exactly right. We are rightly starting to refuse take-away cups in favour of reusables and questioning whether we need a straw in every drink or a toy in every children’s meal. If we don’t need to use a resource at all, it is always best to go without.

But what happens when the packaging’s utility value – lightweight, safe, durable, sealable – justifies its use? Studies in the UK show that many of us are prone to what can be considered a plastic dilemma. We recognise the importance of plastic packaging to protect goods in transit and prolong shelf-life, which helps to prevent food waste, but we are increasingly unwilling to accept that it comes at the expense of the environment. Yet eschewing packaging which helps prevent food waste will and does bring high environmental costs, such as added greenhouse gas emissions. If food waste was a country it would be the third biggest greenhouse gas emitter in the world.

When considering replacing plastics with other materials the choices become complicated. A paper bag has 3.3 times more carbon dioxide embedded in it than a conventional plastic bag. Glass bottles and metal cans in particular have significantly higher emissions associated with their manufacture than their plastic equivalent.

In many situations rejecting plastic does not help the environment at all, but has a negative impact. I work for Recycling Technologies, a recycling company that has developed a machine for recycling a wide range of plastic back into the oil it originally came from. The process recycles waste plastics normally considered unrecyclable, such as bags, crisp packets and sweet wrappers, which today go to landfill or incineration. Recently we ran a trial with Tesco to collect and recycle these soft plastics. The trial was conducted in just 10 stores in south west England, with overwhelming engagement from consumers who brought back plastic at rates far exceeding expectation. This trial shows that consumers want the system to do better and engage more with recycling, as in many countries where recycling is the number one community action for the environment.

So how do we make the system better? Scotland’s code of practice aims to standardise waste collections into three bins so that systems don’t change from district to district. Residents in Belgium receive a single collection sack specifically for plastics, cans and cartons, which accepts virtually all plastic regardless of colour or type. The hope is that this will greatly increase rates of recycling by reducing confusion over what can be accepted and instigating a much simpler decision for residents: If you think it’s plastic, put it in. One system, one message, consistently coded bins at home, in the office, shopping centres and public areas, would empower the nine out of ten people who want to do more, to do just that.

It is technically possible to recycle virtually all plastics, by coupling innovative recycling approaches with existing mechanical recycling processes, which currently recycle predominantly bottles and trays. However to transition to what can be recycled in theory to what is recycled in practice requires investment in building recycling capacity.

The increasing drive from our favourite brands to use recycled materials in packaging will encourage investment in recycling capacity. The government is also stimulating demand for recycled raw materials for use in manufacturing, reducing the need for virgin raw materials. In the recent budget, the Chancellor confirmed the introduction of a plastics tax in 2022. Under this, producers and importers of plastics packaging will need to have a minimum of 30% recycled content in their products or face a £200 per tonne tax.

A financial incentive triggered the development of plastics in the 1860s; today fiscal measures will hopefully encourage the creation of a plastics recycling infrastructure that is fit for purpose. There is no reason why the UK cannot create a world-leading plastics recycling industry, keeping the value of this great material in-country, creating jobs in this growth economy and protecting our natural environment.