Plastic packaging’s protective role during this pandemic

5th of May 2020 Article by James Lee
Plastic packaging’s protective role during this pandemic

Cromwell Polythene managing director James Lee shares his insights in this blog for ECJ.

During these difficult times, we are encouraged to spread positivity, and I'd like to highlight the important role that plastic packaging is playing in helping key workers fight against COVID-19. It is used for medical equipment and to safely protect specialist items, which is extremely important for infection control at the moment. Plastic is incredibly versatile and, today more than ever, is a lifesaving material, helping healthcare teams around the world in the amazing job they are doing.

In its summary of ‘Why do we need plastic packaging?', one of the key reasons highlighted by the British Plastics Federation (BPF) is that "plastic keeps products free from contamination. This is particularly useful for medical packaging as they can be filled and sealed hygienically without any human intervention. (eg, sterile syringes)".

Other key workers, including those in the cleaning industry, the care sector and local authority waste management and recycling teams, are reliant on a range of plastic products, including personal protective equipment, clinical and special waste sacks, bin liners and recycling sacks, amongst others.

Responsibly produced plastic can have a high recycled content (up to 100 per cent) and can be reprocessed many times, not only saving virgin material but associated energy as well. Within the cleaning industry, it enables the safe containment of cleaning products, eliminating environmental leaching of cleaning chemicals and residue from bottles, for instance.

The industry's use of plastic waste sacks and bags is the simplest and most cost-effective way to encourage the safe and hygienic separation and collection of materials for re-use and recycling.

Plastic waste sacks also play a significant role in helping to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spreading within households. Public Health England ‘guidance for households with possible coronavirus' includes advice for cleaning and disposal of waste. It states that personal waste (such as used tissues) and disposable cleaning cloths can be stored securely within disposable rubbish bags.

These bags should be placed into another bag, tied securely and kept separate from other waste. This should be put aside for at least 72 hours before being put in the usual external household waste bin. Other household waste can be disposed of as normal.

Having access to vital supplies is important during this time. Plastic packaging also keeps food fresh for longer, and helps to ensure that large amounts of food do not go to waste.

A brighter future

We all want to see the minimisation, recovery, reuse, and recycling of every type of packaging and it is essential that we work together to find solutions to protect our environment, combat climate change, to keep products in use for as long as possible, and to prevent leakage of valuable resources from the circular economy. However, whilst there needs to be action taken on waste, this does not mean we need to do battle against plastic.

Plastic waste has grabbed the headlines but in our desire to do the right thing, the challenge for organisations and individuals is not to eschew plastics in favour of less resource efficient alternatives, but to choose responsibly sourced materials with the lowest carbon footprint.

As the BPF indicates "plastic packaging can be recycled many times to create new products, and the rates of recycling and the number of different plastics that are recycled in the UK have been increasing."

Climate change is another pressing issue that we are facing. Our company ethos has always been to supply products that make the world cleaner, greener and more economical. One element of hope in this unhappy situation, is that this pandemic is making us more aware of the importance of using resources wisely. There are signs that air pollution and C02 emissions have dropped as a result of changes made to manage the virus.

It will be interesting to see if governments will take more measures to ensure environmental benefits can be maintained, and resource efficiency can be improved, once this pandemic eases.

This year was expected to herald significant change on the environmental front, not least in terms of recycling and waste management. However the Environment Bill in the UK, setting standards for improving air quality, protecting the environment and increasing recycling, is now on hold, as we focus on combatting coronavirus.

The UK government has outlined plans for a consistent set of recyclable materials to be collected from all households and businesses. These include weekly food waste collections, and simplification of the process.

Recycling and re-use of materials starts with effective segregation of the different waste streams, such as paper, glass, plastic, and food waste, to avoid contamination. Unfortunately, items can often end up in the incorrect bin. The value of paper, for example, is significantly reduced if it is contaminated with wet wastes such as food, and may even render it unrecyclable.

The government is also reviewing and consulting on extended producer responsibility. Producers will be required to take more responsibility for the products and materials they place on the market, including when they become waste, under the reform of the UK Packaging Producer Responsibility System.

Key part of the national infrastructure

Organisations from across the plastics packaging sector are playing their part in helping to protect people, whether that be providing PPE, manufacturing equipment or offering use of warehouse space at this time. The BPF has successfully called for the plastics industry to be classified as a key part of the national infrastructure, since its workers and their skills are critical in the production of much needed products.

Our teams are continuing to work exceptionally hard under difficult circumstances to ensure key workers have the vital products they need. That's why we've started showcasing examples of their work to support others, with the important messages that our teams are #HelpingUKCareCleanContain and #HelpingPeopleHelpingPlanet.



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