Sustainability - how to buy responsibly

6th of November 2018
Sustainability - how to buy responsibly
Sustainability - how to buy responsibly

With the announcement of the latest Circular Economy Package, an even greater onus has been placed on industry to demonstrate a commitment to sustainable business. Lorcan Mekitarian, RPC bpi recycled products sales director, explains how, for cleaning firms looking to expand their environmental behaviour, procurement is the best place to start.

To the untrained eye, contract cleaning is all about keeping the client’s work environment free from litter, germs and visible dirt. Throw in a paper recycling bin for good measure and many will think they are doing their best for the environment. However, cleaning businesses have a much greater opportunity to make a difference, both at their own premises and out on site. What may not be immediately obvious is that what is good for the environment is usually good for business.

As the wider business community begins to work toward circular economy targets, cleaning firms will increasingly be asked to prove their environmental credentials. To make a serious contribution, support for recycling systems will not be enough – circular thinking takes the entire supply chain into account. Buying recycled products wherever possible helps to bridge a huge gap in the system, saving valuable resources and injecting income into the national economy.

The Circular Economy Package

For the last 150 years, the economy has consisted of a linear value chain which exploits natural resources. Products are manufactured and then disposed of – to landfill or incineration – once they are no longer useful. This model destroys virtually all the value created in the earliest steps of production; the circular economy, on the other hand, looks for ways to retain value in the supply chain.

Earlier this year, the European Commission introduced an ambitious, updated Circular Economy Package, which sets out concrete actions and targets. Key elements include the introduction of economic incentives to encourage the production of greener products, and targets which call for EU member states to recycle 65 per cent of municipal and 75 per cent of packaging waste by 2030.
Implementing circular economy policies is expected to build resilience into the market.

Many larger companies are aware that resources are finite; as raw materials become more scarce, costs increase, which means that a linear economy is only effective until the resources run dry. Beyond this, projections show that a new approach will bring added economic benefits. For example, the consumer goods sector could save over €600 billion annually. Not surprisingly, businesses are taking action and asking suppliers to do the same.

Sustainable procurement

As increasing numbers of businesses implement environmental initiatives, more and more tenders will look for ways to differentiate between bidders. Procurement is the forgotten piece in the recycling jigsaw. These days we are au fait with the principles of recycling and, in the plastics sector, technology has been developed to recycle every type of polymer on the market. However, without a demand for recycled products, all of the collections, waste segregation and awareness-building are futile.

For cleaning firms sustainable procurement means auditing purchase arrangements – from bins and refuse sacks to electrical equipment and cleaning solutions – and opting for the most environmentally friendly solution.

Recycled refuse sacks, which are largely manufactured from recycled plastic film, offer a major opportunity to utilise recycled plastics which are not suitable for food grade applications.
In addition, although we live in a global economy where products are traded across long distances, buying from a supplier within the EU can help to save fuel miles and inject funds into a local economy. Companies producing the sacks will be able to invest in state of the art equipment which will help to promote even more recycling.

Case study: refuse bags

Polyethylene has been a mainstay of industry for many years. We use it for many packaging applications, and also to manufacture the bags used to dispose of products at the end of their lives.
With an increased focus on plastics, many companies are looking to buy more responsibly. Buyers want to make sure that bags and plastic wrap are made from the most sustainable materials possible, and to prevent used carrier bags from littering the environment. However, there is a great deal of confusion around the different options – from compostable bags, to bio polyethylene and oxo-degradable polymers.

Recycled polyethylene

Recycled polyethylene is exactly what it says on the tin. Manufactured from waste polymers, recycled refuse sacks save valuable resources, and can be recycled along with virgin plastics through a standard recycling system.

Key facts: Manufactured from 100 per cent recycled material; 100 per cent recyclable; not compostable.

Biobased polyethylene

The building block for all polyethylene is ethylene. Standard polyethylene comes from fossil-based sources, while bio polyethylene is manufactured from renewable sources, such as sugar cane. Once the raw materials are polymerised, the resulting products are the same, so biobased polyethylene can be blended with standard polyethylene, and holds the same properties.

Since it is identical to standard polyethylene, biobased polymers are recyclable within conventional plastic waste streams. The appeal of biobased polyethylene comes from the use of renewable materials, which can result in a lower carbon footprint during the manufacturing process.

However, there is currently a limited supply of biobased polyethylene, with the only major supplier based in South America. A criticism of this material, and indeed many other biobased polymers, is that the land used to produce the material could have been used to grow food. There is also a question over the carbon impact of transporting the material from South America around the world.
Key facts: Manufactured from renewable sources; 100 per cent recyclable; not compostable.


Although the term ‘compostable’ might suggest that bags come from plant-based materials – such as eucalyptus, sunflower plants, or sugar beet – compostable bags can be made from either renewable sources such as this, or from petrochemicals. Whichever material is used to make the bags, a fully compostable bag must be certified under EN 13432 on industrial compostability. This accreditation gives the consumer absolute assurance that the bag can be treated in an industrial composting plant.

At the end of its life, a compostable bag will degrade, leaving no visually distinguishable or toxic residues. However, this does not mean it will entirely disappear – the biological processes will result in carbon dioxide, water and inorganic compounds.

Like biobased polyethylene, compostable bags made from renewable sources are grown on land that could have been used to produce food. However, unlike biobased polyethylene, the polymers are largely manufactured in Europe and the Middle East, so transportation issues are reduced.

Renewable and standard polyethylene versions are made in the same regions, so the transportation footprint is relatively equal, even though compostable materials have a lower melting temperature – and therefore need less energy – to convert them into a useful product.

Compostable bags come in two types – those suitable for home composting, and those designed for large commercial systems. Most bags are certified under the DIN system by an independent organisation, which tests their rate of degradation and assesses the raw materials used. Those suitable for domestic composting degrade at ambient temperatures and come with an ‘OK Compost’ mark. Those intended for local authority collections and industrial composting feature the ‘Compost’ mark.

Key facts: Manufactured from renewable and fossil-derived sources; compostable under suitable conditions.


Oxo-degradable polymers are made from conventional plastics with the addition of additives that mean they can be broken down by micro-organisms into water, carbon dioxide and other remnants. These are frequently confused with compostable products, but their properties differ significantly.
The main effect of oxidation is fragmentation into small particles. Unlike compostable bags, degradable ones usually include an additive, which is sensitive to heat and light. This chemical, which mimics biodegradation to make the product ‘oxo-biodegradable’, can leave a toxic residue.

Degradable bags are not recyclable or compostable, and can be extremely detrimental if they find their way into a standard polyethylene recycling system. For example, a damp course or other construction membrane made from recycled polyethylene will be deployed underground and may be expected to last 50 years. The degradable polymer will have a much shorter life span, which can seriously impact the effectiveness of the product if the two types of polymer are unintentionally mixed.

Key facts: Not recyclable or compostable.


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