Get the facts straight on plastic

21st of July 2017 Article by James Lee
Get the facts straight on plastic

From bin liners to bottles, the cleaning industry is a major buyer of plastic and plastic-packaged products, and for many this raises questions about sustainability. But Cromwell Polythene managing director James Lee says commentators need to carefully consider the facts before bashing plastics.

Plastic materials and the cleaning industry are inextricably linked, in the same way that plastic packaging is ubiquitous across almost every sector you can think of. But just as the use of plastic has increased, so too have environmental concerns connected with its production, distribution and disposal.

From the damage to marine habitats caused by plastics in the ocean to the naming and shaming of unrecyclable and over-packaged products - these issues are certainly newsworthy and must be tackled. However, the real issue is not with plastics themselves, but with recycling rates, end-user behaviour, and product design.

What are the alternatives?

In the cleaning industry, plastic is used for lining bins and sanitary units, and in disposable gloves and other PPE to support cleaning. In addition, plastics are used as packaging for a vast array of products, including cleaning chemicals and other substances that are potentially hazardous to human health.

Plastic and plastic packaged cleaning products are leak resistant and light-weight compared to alternative materials such as glass, tin, aluminium or paper. In the quantities required to replace plastics, each of these alternatives have much higher overall environmental costs.

In fact, a report by environmental impact analyst Trucost found that the overall cost of using alternative materials throughout society instead of plastic was approximately four times that of using plastic in a business-as-usual scenario.

Trucost estimated that substituting plastic in consumer products and packaging with alternatives that perform the same function would increase environmental costs from $139 billion to a staggering total of $533 billion.

Responsibly managed plastic

Contrary to popular belief, plastics have a very resource-efficient profile - particularly those produced from recycled materials. The environmental costs of using plastics in packaging are nearly four times lower than if plastics were replaced by alternative materials over the full life cycle.

But sending plastics to landfill is a waste of resources. Crucially, responsibly produced plastics can be recycled effectively and efficiently, or used to generate energy from waste (EFW) at the end of their useful life. The facts are simple - responsibly-sourced plastic meets the stringent hygiene and safety demands of the cleaning sector while contributing to resource savings across diverse applications.

How to make sustainable choices

Cleaning companies looking to cut out plastic waste and further sustainability goals should consider these three key points:

1. Choose cleaning products that are packaged in materials (usually plastics) that are clearly labelled as recyclable - avoid complex, multi-material containers with no recycling instructions.

2. Opt for plastics that are created from recycled material. There are many highly competitively-priced products on the market that use recycled plastics, some with up to 100% recycled material content.

3. Choose sanitary bin liners that include anti-microbial agents added at the point of manufacture, during the film extrusion process. This saves time, money and resources by reducing and even eliminating the need to use separate anti-microbial products during waste collection and disposal.

Demand for plastic is set to continue to grow, and so too is innovation in collection, sorting and processing technologies to make all plastic packaging recyclable. The challenge for buyers in the cleaning sector is not to look for costly and ineffective alternatives to plastics, but to opt to use responsibly sourced materials and become champions of recycling best practice themselves.

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