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Coming Full Circle – Delivering Sustainable Plastic Products

What do we mean by sustainability?  We can talk about the sustainability of a business as far as its long term ability to stay open, but increasingly we mean environmental longevity when we mention sustainability today.

Manufacturing is one of the oldest industries and has had some pretty bad press at times for the use of fossil-fuels, high carbon footprint and so on.  Today’s UK manufacturing businesses are much cleaner and very much aware of their corporate social responsibility on the environmental front.   Much is being attempted in a number of ways – from the use of solar panels for light and heat; grass and sedum roofs; electric or hybrid vehicles; end of life strategies; cleaner and leaner manufacturing practices – and of course recycling anything and everything that can be recycled.

Sustainability is a strategic directive within a number of manufacturers in the UK, and the use of recycled and bio materials is coming more and more to the fore for those in the plastics industry – even though it is nascent in a number of areas.  For example, in the food sector we are seeing a rise in the use of bio-polymers for packaging and vegetable growth as these degrade in a fairly short period of time.  The use of these polymers in other areas is still under test as requirements are sector specific and therefore can be quite different.

A consortium of Welsh universities under the umbrella brand ‘BEACON’ (Aberystwyth, Bangor and Swansea – www.beaconwales.org ), are developing such polymers.  They are produced from renewable biomass sources, for different applications and are showing some excellent results.  BEACON are actively working with a small number of companies to bring the bio-polymer based products to market.  For example a small Welsh manufacturing company, Hadley Hargreaves, is about to start testing bio-polymers for the use in some of its new blow moulded products.   Dr Rob Elias, director of the bio-composites centre for BEACON commented, “We are really keen to get on with testing the bio-polymers for a number of blow moulded products, and to have Hadley Hargreaves on board with us to do this is a great opportunity for both parties”.

Recycled plastic is very much at the top of the agenda now for many of us as we see great expanses of ocean covered in islands of plastic waste.  The circular economy is starting to become more front of mind and is a corporate social responsibility focus for many firms.  But, there is a concern amongst many customers that products made from recycled plastics are not as robust as those produced using virgin polymers.  Ongoing work in this area is starting to produce dividends and recycled materials can now be substituted for virgin in a number of production processes.

But what about end of life for these materials?  To be fully part of the circular economy they need to be recyclable in an on-going way.  Today this is not always the case and again, research into ongoing sustainability of the different forms of plastic materials from and end of life aspect will improve things from both a manufacturing and consumer point of view.

And talking of customers and consumers, increasingly they get added value through the knowledge that the containers (and other objects) that they use are produced from recycled materials.  They actively choose these materials over new – and are moving away from single use plastics where possible.  Given this, there is an opportunity for manufacturers working with recycled or bio-polymers to generate key messages through their green credentials and gain share of this growth market.  It’s a win-win situation for us all – and for the environment.

After all, we all want to be able to paddle in the sea knowing that there are no islands of waste plastic just over the horizon – don’t we?

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Dr Julie Jones

Chartered Marketer and Lecturer in Strategic Marketing

Aberystwyth Business School, Aberystwyth University

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