Factsheet: Plastic (part-II)

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What are oxo-degradables? And microplastics? Your questions on plastics answered part-II

Is plastic packaging bad for the environment?

Plastic packaging is bad for the environment when it is littered into the environment, in particular. But it may sometimes represent a sustainable solution if we take special care to manage our waste.

Every type of material has environmental costs associated with its extraction, production, use and disposal. Plastic is no different, and actually sometimes these overall lifetime environmental costs can in some cases be lower when we use plastic.

Plastic: the most dumped into the environment of all materials

However, no material is being dumped into the environment at the scale that plastic waste is around the world. Researchers have estimated that of all the plastic produced globally, just 9% has been recycled. Around 8 million tonnes of plastic enters the oceans each year. Therefore, plastic waste is causing an enormous issue for the planet and we all have to take steps to stop this.

Countries in the EU can help lead the way by using plastic packaging that can be easily collected and recycled. 

Are other materials better, compared to plastic?

Plastic production, use, and disposal all emit significant amounts of greenhouse gases. But it’s important to keep in mind this can be true also of the alternative materials as well.

Consider the production and manufacturing of the main alternatives to plastic for a 500ml bottle. Other packaging types (fibre, glass, steel and aluminium) emit more greenhouse gases than plastic bottles across their lifetime, in fact glass bottles are the highest emitter overall. 

Plastic packaging has special properties that allow food to be stored longer and ultimately help to reduce food waste. It has been estimated by INCPEN that ten times more resources, including materials, energy and water, are used to make and distribute food than are used to make the packaging to protect it. According to the World Resources Institute, if food waste were a country it would be the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases. So protecting food from going to waste is a very important role that plastic packaging plays in sustainability.

No material is necessarily inherently bad, it’s really a case of how we use it and the measures we put in place to reduce our footprint on the Earth. We have to be conscious of how we use plastic, and use it responsibly to help us all work towards a circular economy where our resources do not end up as waste in the environment.

What about marine litter?

Around 8 million tonnes of plastic enters the oceans every year.

This figure is unfortunately so large as a result of poor management of waste, particularly in certain regions of the world where the infrastructure to collect, recycle or simply dispose of the plastic waste, does not exist.

About 60% of global mismanaged plastic waste occurs in East Asia and the Pacific, with some rivers such as the Yangtze contributing many thousands of tonnes a year.

Global mismanaged plastic waste by region
Global mismanaged plastic waste by region

Source: https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/mismanaged-plastic-waste-by-region-2025

 

What can we do against the plastic soup?

In order to stem the tide of plastic waste that enters our oceans, countries must work together to ensure the best waste management practices are implemented globally. It’s important that efforts in Europe–which accounts for only 0.28% of river-based plastic input into seas and oceans–are also learned from and adapted for local regions where the leakage is higher.

Besides a collective effort we also need local solutions derived from regional realities and based on local economic conditions, so that waste can be collected and processed in ways that work for them today, in the short term, too.

 

Is plastic recyclable?

 It may be surprising to learn but technically all plastic is recyclable.

The technology exists to recycle all types of plastic, but the reality is that these technologies are not widely deployed around the world. Mainly, because unfortunately it is not always currently economically feasible to do so. Generally speaking, in order for plastic to be collected and recycled it has to make financial sense so businesses can be set up to conduct these activities.

In the UK, 78% of plastic packaging is recovered (including for both recycling and energy recovery), and 47% of this is recycled for use into new products. This means the UK is within the top 10 in Europe. New businesses operating chemical recycling technologies are on the horizon in the UK, to help with the recycling of difficult-to-recycle plastics, and legislative changes are occurring to try to keep pushing these recycling numbers higher and higher, as is also happening of course across the whole of Europe.

There are of course different types of plastic, some that are currently more widely collected for recycling.

Widely recycled plastics include:

●      PET as used in soft drink bottles, trays and punnets.

●      HDPE which is used for bottles, grocery bags and pipes.

●      LDPE which is used for plastic bags, various containers and dispensing bottles (widely recycled at local collection points).

●      PP is the material chosen for many food containers, cups and dishware.

 

Plastics that are collected and can be recycled, but only in certain areas at this time, include:

 

●      PS as used in cafeteria trays, plastic utensils, coffee cup lids, clamshell containers, as well as EPS used for insulation board and foamed protective packaging.

One plastic that when used in packaging is currently not widely collected for recycling:

●      PVC: there is currently considerable capacity to recycle PVC building products, but unfortunately not packaging products.

Notably, PLA bioplastic which is used for food containers, cups, cutlery and films can be collected in some areas to be composted

Packaging design is essential for the recycling process

Packaging design makes a difference to how likely something is to be recycled within the different countries across Europe.

For example if a PET drinks bottle is covered with a PVC sleeve, when it gets to the recycling plant to be sorted the scanning technology may only recognise the PVC sleeve and so not sort it properly to be recycled (as PVC packaging is not widely recycled). Similarly, some ‘carbon’ black plastics are not correctly identified by certain scanners, so they also can slip through the net. Good design helps us avoid these scenarios.

Plastic can be recycled back into the original product or sometimes other items or applications in industries, such as:

●      Durable goods for our homes and businesses, such as furniture

●      Insulation for buildings

●      Agricultural products

●      Automotive parts

●      Packaging

●      Building and construction materials

 

Plastic in river
Plastic often makes its way to the sea via rivers

Is plastic packaging resource efficient?

Plastic can be considered quite a resource efficient packaging material.

This means you can produce a lot of plastic packaging by using relatively low amounts of material and energy resources to do so, when compared with alternative materials.

Think about how thin and light plastic is—and the fact that it is still strong enough to do its job with that small amount of material.

Some studies suggest that if you wanted to replace plastic packaging with alternative materials, you would use 2.2 times the energy and 3.6 times the mass in order to do so. This weight difference can add up meaning more fuel emissions in transportation, so it is important that packaging is kept as light as possible.

In addition, when plastics packaging is recycled this saves on the energy expenditure in the original extraction of fossil fuels, increasing overall resource efficiency.

 

What are oxo-degradables?

Oxo-degradable plastics are regular, conventional plastics which have a special additive added which means they break down more rapidly in the environment into smaller fragments.

UV light or heat exposure helps them break down more quickly, which they do through a process of chemical oxidation. However, there is quite a bit of controversy surrounding the extent to which they simply break down into microplastics.

The EU has banned the use of oxo-degradable plastics for this very reason.

There are a number of issues associated with these products:

●      Oxo-degradable plastics may quickly fragment into smaller and smaller pieces, known as microplastics, but may not break down at the molecular or polymer level.  The resulting microplastics are left in the environment indefinitely.

●      They may cause increased greenhouse gas emissions in landfill when compared to traditional plastics that do not degrade.

●      They may indirectly promote littering (based on the false belief that the packaging will breakdown if left in the environment)

●      There exist some toxicity concerns of the additives and byproducts (e.g. heavy metals etc.)

At Verive, we recognise the evidence that oxo-degradables can do more harm than good.

Simply replacing conventional plastic for a different material is not always the most sustainable solution, and indeed this is quite likely the case when it comes to oxo-degradable plastics. 

 

What are microplastics?

A microplastic is any plastic debris less than 5mm in length.

Microplastics can be much much smaller than 5mm in length and this is one of the reasons they can be particularly insidious. Their size makes them difficult to manage, difficult to collect once they have escaped into the environment, and means they’re mistaken for food by a range of animals and small organisms.

Microplastics can come from the breakdown of regular plastics by the sun or other factors, the ingredients in products like cigarette filters, from textile fibres and one major source is actually car tyres.

Because of their small size microplastics can be blown great distances by the wind or pass easily through water filtration systems. Research is still being conducted into the full effect of microplastics on humans and other animals so it’s still too early to say what impact this may have on our health long term.

How are microplastics being used?

Microplastics have been used in everyday products. Cosmetic companies used microbeads—purposely placing small microplastics in products like facial scrub. However, several countries have banned microbeads from rinse-off cosmetics, including Canada, France, New Zealand, Sweden, Taiwan and the United Kingdom.

 

Microplastics
Microplastics

What are bio-based plastics?

Biobased plastics, also commonly referred to as bioplastics, are made from polymers manufactured from a biological source (plants), rather than fossil fuels. A well-known bioplastic is PLA.

Biobased plastics are designed to look, feel and act like plastics, but have a few key differences. For instance, instead of being made from finite resources they are made from renewable resources.

It is important to note there are 2 types of biobased plastics.

Biobased non-biodegradable plastics:

Common plastics types, such as PET and PE, which traditionally have been made from petrochemical sources but can now be produced from alternative renewable sources.  Though not biodegradable, these plastics can be recycled by existing recycling infrastructure.

Biobased compostable plastics:

Plant or starch based plastics such as PLA, which are produced from renewable sources and will biodegrade under the right conditions to produce a fibrous material which when added with the nutrient content from food waste, produces compost.  They will not degrade in landfill sites or the natural environment.  They cannot be recycled with conventional fossil-fuel derived or bio-based non-biodegradable plastics.

Note:

The term ‘biodegradable’ is often used interchangeably with the term ‘biobased’, and although they are linked, they are not the same. ‘Biobased’ is a direct reference to the raw material source of the product. If something is biobased this means that the material has been produced from a biological source, such as plants or other types of renewable agricultural, marine or forestry materials, rather than the traditional petro-chemical source used for plastics. However, bio-based does not necessarily mean biodegradable.

We know that the term biodegradable has been used to describe many products causing confusion amongst consumers. Here is why we commit to not using the term 'biodegradable' to describe any of our products.

What is recycled plastic?

It’s plastic that has been sent to a recycling plant, where it is washed, sorted, chipped into flakes, and is eventually melted into new plastic pellets for use in new products.

The new plastic pellets look the same as virgin plastic pellets, however they are of course made from material that in most cases has had some use in a consumer product like packaging. 

When these pellets are used again in a new product, often they are mixed in with some proportion of ‘virgin’ plastic to help keep the quality of the product up to certain standards.

Recycled plastic is found in a wide variety of products, from benches, plant pots, shoes to water bottles and bins.

Not all plastic that gets sent to a recycling plant gets recycled, but in general most of it should. Well-designed plastic packaging that makes it easy to separate different types of plastic, helps us recycle a higher volume of plastic material. 

Got another question about plastic? Don't hesistate to get in touch.

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James Pitcher
James Pitcher

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