Plastics: From Cradle to Grave and Resurrection – my thoughts on a recent conference

Plastics – from Cradle to Grave and Resurrection

I attended a conference (that I helped organise) about Plastics – the aim was to look at the whole issue rather than a single item. It covered recycling, micro plastics and health impacts as well as some regulatory issues and new research.

Despite following a lot of the news (and there seems to be a lot of news at the moment) I still learn quite a lot. There are issues with the Packaging Recovery Notes – (the tax that has to be paid for anyone buying large amounts of packaging) and the amount issued compared to the amount recycled in this country (apparently prices are currently going through the roof). I learnt that there is such a term as bin juice for all those liquids that get left in the bottom of bins. Even though all councils collet plastic bottles the recycling rate is only 59% – but still we think that recycling isn’t easy enough. However, on the downside, there is very little recycling of film, even though in theory it is possible to recycle it to be used in a number of common applications.
61 million tonnes of PVC are still produced annually – even though there are alternatives that are less harmful to make and to dispose of for most uses. This might be because there are fewer and fewer uses for chlorine, the byproduct of making salt.
One of the biggest causes of microplastics is from car tyres, but also detergents, clothing, pharmaceuticals, paints and personal care products are also significant sources.
There was also the suggestion that most innovations that are highlighted are focussed on ‘virtue signalling’ and not actual solutions, something that I found interesting in one talk that was otherwise quite dull.
But it wasn’t all bad news.
I learnt about chemical and enzymatic upcycling of plastics to get back to reusable monomers. This was a very interesting idea, as most recycling ends up losing some of the original polymer and is often for less valuable uses. This even gives the option of removing those additives from some of the hard to manage black plastics.
And then, there is the government funding that has been allocated through Innovate UK and the Circular Plastics Network ( accessed 28/06/19). It looks as though there are lots of new ideas out there following the Innovate UK funding announced last year.

Avoiding the greenwash of plastic packaging.

I am concerned both at home and at work about the amount of single use plastic in my life.  I have ditched the plastic from my milk, reuse all my plastic bags, try not to buy food in plastic wherever possible and refuse to drink out of a single use cup.  At work we have slashed the amount of plastic cutlery, got rid of straws and are working on a few obvious quick wins.  But, it is not as easy as it should be.  In the wake of the recent publicity from Blue Planet 2 packaging companies have been quick to market their green alternatives.  These take two forms, one based on plant materials and one with added sparkle (or something or other) to make the polymer degrade faster.  Inevitably they tend to cost more than the fossil fuel equivalent.

But, whilst these sound, on the face of it, like a good idea, they are not as green as they would first seem and I have a couple of examples from my workplace to illustrate the conundrum.

Firstly, in our catering department they are keen to try to move away from standard plastics (although arguably less keen to move to reusable items).  On their own they replaced their plastic boxes with a corn-starch based material.  Now they are considering changing some of the other items for one made from Polylactic acid (PLA).  This is also a plant based product that is similar to PET and has the advantage that it is not made from fossil fuels, is compostable and recyclable, and, if it is incinerated it won’t release the toxic chemicals found in many other plastics.

The second type came from elsewhere in the organisation.  They had started a trial with a plastic bag that had an added chemical that means it is biodegradable.  Again, it is alleged that it can be recycled, but also that it will degrade in landfill.

Both of these solutions to the plastic issue have some fundamental flaws (other than cost):

  1. One of the issues with plastics is that they don’t break down easily, but this gives them a relatively long shelf life.  This is not the case if they contain biodegradable plastic, so these greener plastics are less recyclable.
  2. Most food waste in this country goes to anaerobic digestion, for a compostable plastic to be ‘greener’ it would need to go to an industrial composter.  I have been told that there is currently only one in the UK.
  3. It is fine that something might break down in landfill, but not that much waste goes to landfill in the UK any more.  Usually mixed waste goes to a material recycling facility, this separates out the plastics, metals etc., then sends the rest as energy from waste.

So, whilst these are probably a good idea for a use that cannot be recycled (such as medical devices or packaging that for some reason needs to be incinerated and for which a reusable device is just not practicable or available), or for places where littering may be more of an issue (here I am thinking of the PLA option, not the fossil fuel option with added chemical) for many applications where there are good recycling facilities and where the domestic waste also gets sorted, then these are still not the right answer.

Zero Waste Week – not rubbish so far

This week is Zero Waste Week and I thought this was probably a good excuse to host some events at work to start raising awareness about waste.  The theme of Zero Waste Week is ‘Do One More Thing” and there are lots of things that people can do that will reduce the ridiculous amount of waste that we create.  My aim this week is to get people thinking along the lines of reuse rather than recycle – see my previous post on why I hate recycling.

At the hospital where I work as Sustainability Manager, we produce a lot of waste.  And I mean that in the sense of waste being something that is no longer to be used for the original intention.  However, in actual fact I don’t believe it is really waste.

So, for Zero Waste Week I decided to have a series of events for the week, all to get people thinking about waste and, yes recycling if it can’t be reused.

After two days, which I couldn’t call  the busiest two days I’ve had in terms of talking to people, I have had some success and am developing a few ideas for further waste reduction projects.

We started with a uniform and stationery amnesty on Monday.  I had several trollies full of stationery delivered and have distributed several reams of coloured paper and a few boxes of folders already.  I also got to talk to a few people as they passed; always worthwhile.

Tuesday we had our new waste management company in with free lollipops – we were hoping for pens (pens are like gold dust in a hospital and open many a door) but they didn’t arrive in time!  However, they had a recycling game which gave us something to talk to staff and visitors about – many didn’t realise that plastic bottles could be made into fleece jackets or that their food waste collected from their doorsteps is used to generate electricity.  Although not as good as pens, lollipops are a useful way to invite people to talk to you  – or just to put a smile on their face as they wait for the lift.

We still have three days left although I am trusting in our catering team to deliver tomorrow whilst I am away in London.

A Zero Waste Week Rant

I have a confession to make that may surprise people that have never had a conversation with me (and, please don’t tell our waste contractors this).


Or, to be a little more precise I hate the perceptions and excuses that recycling brings.  I have lost count of the number of times that I’ve heard people say, I do everything I can, I recycle!  Sorry, no you don’t do everything, you put something you buy in a bin that is provided for you.  Or, another of my favourites, we are in a better position than we were thirty years ago.  WRONG.  (I ranted at a bunch of old men in a meeting about this once – most unlike me, as I am actually usually quite shy and retiring).

I grew up in the 70s (yes, I know, I am old).  We didn’t have so much recycling back then, but we didn’t throw so much away either.  Today we throw away an average of 423 kg of waste per person (and this has fallen dramatically in the last five years) whereas 30 years ago we each threw away 25kg less.  When you consider how much effort has gone into reducing the amount of material in packaging – thinner bottles, thinner cans, less easter egg packaging (it appears everything is getting thinner apart from the general populace itself), it is still a bit disappointing that we are now where we are.  But, as a child of the 1970s I remember that we used to have a return on the pop bottles so of course we didn’t throw them away.  The milkman brought the milk in milk bottles which he collected when empty and returned for reuse.  We used to hire our television and it was easy (if not cheap) to take it back to be repaired – have you tried finding someone to fix a TV or fridge recently?  The last time I tried to get my fridge fixed I was told it wasn’t possible.  When we went to the supermarket (such that there were back then) you would put your food in a shopping basket or, if it was a Friday night big shop (yes, we did call them that, Peter Kay didn’t make that up) you would get one of the cardboard boxes from the back of the store to put the tins in.  You didn’t get a plastic bag – they charged for those!  And you certainly didn’t have all your food prepackaged – who ever thought putting bananas or mushrooms in plastic was either necessary or useful?

We might be making moves to be more sustainable – but all we are doing in many cases is turning the clock back.  There are now reverse vending machines that give you tokens for bringing your bottles or cans back, there is a move to leasing items so the onus is on the manufacturer to make the goods repairable or recyclable, people search Freegle for cardboard boxes (because you can’t pick them up from the supermarket any more and they come in handy for so many things).  I believe that George Osborne (our green chancellor – please, please say you realise I am being sarcastic) is even thinking of charging for plastic bags – his excuse to date has been that it might send us back into recession and hit our pockets too hard – I might be misty eyed in my recollections (remembering days when wagon wheel chocolate wasn’t translucent) but I don’t think anyone blamed plastic bag charges in the 1970s for people being poor.  I thought there was an  oil crisis and three day week and huge inflation and trade unions that affected disposable income, not plastic bags being less than free!

So, the next time you congratulate yourself on your dark green credentials and think that you are doing all you can because you are recycling, be a bit more critical and think – what am I recycling, did I need it in the first place and, can I reuse it or next time buy something that is reusable?  Remember, Freegle is your friend.

Leading by example.

One of the quotes by Ghandi that is often cited, particularly within the environmental and sustainability world is

‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’

To be honest it is probably the only quote I can remember reading that is ascribed to Ghandi.  However, it highlights an issue that I see quite often.

I am now lucky enough to work as a Sustainability Manager, I hesitate to use the word professional as I am not sure what constitutes professional sustainability.  But, I digress.  Although I have only worked in this area for a couple of years, a couple of things soon became obvious.  Firstly, almost everything in some way comes back to sustainability – most things are linked; travel, food, climate change, population – you name it and I can probably link it into sustainability somehow.  Secondly, some of the issues seem to be so obvious that you wonder why they are an issue at all.  Why isn’t everyone changing their behaviour to preserve the planet – if not for future generations then at least so I don’t have to suffer in my old age?

But then, and here is where I really want to rant, I look around me at colleagues in the sustainability arena.  I see pictures of them on holiday in places where they could only get to by ‘plane.  Apparently it is their only vice and they do everything else sustainably – BUT this outweighs all the other stuff and then some!  Others get out their latest iPhone, would not even consider cutting down on meat, don’t care whether their food is Fair Trade or locally grown.   I could, and often do go on.  I recently made a comment when a colleague was talking about their upcoming cruise around the caribbean to the effect that I can no longer go on a ‘plane.  They thought that I was afraid of flying (for the record I’m not) – and were gobsmacked when I said that I could no longer fly for ethical reasons.

I’m not saying I’m perfect, but I do try to reduce my environmental impact as much as possible and don’t ask others to do anything or give up anything that I wouldn’t do or give up.

After all, how can I tell people about climate change, try and convince them to adopt more climate friendly behaviours and then jump on a ‘plane to fly halfway across the world for a holiday?  It would be like being an overweight, twenty a day doctor lecturing someone on their unhealthy lifestyle.

Waste Hierarchy

OK, if asked to state what the waste hierarchy is then I guess a lot of people would be stumped.  However, most people have heard of reduce, reuse recycle – a lot of waste collection vehicles have it plastered all over their sides.  This has become an easily repeated mantra, but, what does it mean in practice and why is it important, particularly for business?

Taking the latter question first, a recent change to the waste regulations (2011) states that:

‘ businesses who import or produce, collect, transport, recover or dispose of waste, or who operate as dealers and brokers, must take all reasonable measures to apply the waste hierarchy when the waste is transferred’ (taken from the environment agency website).

The waste hierarchy also has recover and dispose – this means that where possible a company should consider energy recovery through either combustion or anaerobic digestion.  Any waste transfer notes and consignment notes will, from the end of September 2011, include a declaration that the waste hierarchy has been considered in the disposal of the waste.

To me, this poses a question – if I can have my waste collected by two companies, one of which takes any unrecyclable waste to an energy recovery facility and one that sends to landfill, do I have to go with the first company if I am to comply with regulations?  Do I need to check whether there is methane recovery from the landfill?  Does that count in the same way as the energy recovery?  So far, I have not been able to definitively answer that question.  The fact that some companies still send to landfill (and therefore charge the landfill tax and its associated escalator) makes me think that there is a loophole somewhere.  From an economic point of view, my research to date has shown that removing landfill tax by sending product to energy recovery saves a considerable amount of money – by 2014 the cost will be £80 per tonne and most standard skips hold around half a tonne each time they are emptied.  (The rights and wrongs of burning potentially valuable resources is a topic for another blog post.)

One of the other major changes in the regulations doesn’t come into effect for another four years, but concerns the collection of recycling and will affect quite a number of companies.  At the moment companies can salve their conscience and save making too much effort by having what is called Dry Mixed Recycling (DMR).  This means that cardboard, paper, office waste, bottles, cans, plastic etc., can all be put in one container which is later sorted by the waste company (who charge a little more for this as well).  I have also heard of some companies that collect separated waste in one vehicle – thus begging the question as to why separate in the first place.  I have two problems with this practice.  The first is purely practical.  The value and usefulness of these recyclates is lowered because they are contaminated – this is particularly true of the cardboard and paper.  The second is a matter of perception.  If someone has to make more of an effort and think about what they are recycling because they have to consider and separate the different types, does the importance of recycling increase in their mind.

From 2015 anyone who produces paper, glass, plastic or metal waste streams will have to ensure they have taken all practicable steps to ensure they are separated.  This will mean a change in collection facilities for many companies and therefore a change in culture.  My team and I instigated a separated recycling system on one of our sites a few years ago.  We did encounter some resistance at first, but eventually most people did come on board.  The main problems result from lorry drivers throwing anything they can in the recycling skip.

In later posts I will go through some of the things that can be put in place to reduce your waste to landfill as well as taking you along the journey I am starting as I attempt to instigate a waste management practice at work.


Low Carbon Event

Northamptonshire Enterprise recently held a low carbon event over at the University – a morning of short talks by local businesses and organisations aimed at helping to promote low carbon growth in the county.  I heard about it through the Daventry Environment Business Network and thought it would be good for my colleague and I to attend.

So, was it useful?  Yes and no.  As with all such events, speakers are there to make money and to advertise their wares  – who can blame them, their time is valuable.  However, I do believe that if you are going to speak at one of these events, you should have a worthwhile message to get across even if the audience is not in the market for whatever you are selling.

A lot of it was not new, it is already out there and it was not presented in a new way.  However, it is easy to forget that long list of things that you had intended to do and never got round to.  I also came across a couple of new ideas that I had not really considered before.

The first couple of speakers were very good and mainly spoke about waste minimisation, cleaner processes etc without too much of a sales pitch.  Later talks were more about particular products – biomass and wood burning boilers, LED lights or services – water leak detection.  I think I would have liked to have heard more about successes and efficiencies that local companies had achieved though, as this would probably have given me more ideas.  However, I do not know where most of the other delegates were from, so maybe it was more applicable to them.

So, apart from completely unrelated things that occurred to me, what else have I thought about following this?

Firstly is an idea that has also featured in an environmental course I am doing – the idea that what is one person’s waste is someone else’s input stream and that recycling should be a last resort.  I need to review all of our waste and see how much is avoidable and whether any other waste streams can be sold or given away.  This points me towards some very interesting projects at one of our other sites.

Secondly, we really need to be more imaginative in order to change the hearts and minds of those around (and above us).

Thirdly was the saying from one of the speakers – do what you do, but do it better – that is – increase efficiency – this, I think, is the key to being more environmentally sound.

What will I be doing next?  Waste audits, awareness campaigns (waste and energy), increased recycling and checking out renewable heat incentives and other available grants.

Continuing the recycling theme from previous posts I note that there were some rather fancy recycling bins inside the building – although, unlike us they do not have any facilities (yet) for crisp packet recycling!  Perhaps I should send them a memo!

Recycling – the next step.

One of the things that I think that we have in common with many companies is that we had a big cupboard (or in our case an area on top of the locker room) which we used to store our waste electrical items.  The WEEE  (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) directive states that all waste electrical product made after a certain time should be taken back by the manufacturer – I think that most of our stuff was too old for that and as most of it is bought through our IT department it is probably difficult to find the original producer, much less make them take it back – it would just end up in a cupboard at a different site!

A recent visit to a centre that takes in WEEE waste provided sufficient momentum to get the process started – at least for our site although heaven only knows how much there is to sort out at the rest of the other sites.  All in all the process is quite simple.  They sent us a list of hazardous waste which we would have to pay an additional charge for as well as a charge for a consignment note.  Once the order was raised we had a pallet box on site for a week and then it was collected – as it was not far away we went to watch it being disposed of and had a great tour round the site.  I even took some pictures to prove to our IT department that they would not be usable afterwards.

The bits of equipment are bashed to smaller bits by huge whirling chains, then the ferrous metals are pulled out by magnets and other metals separated from the plastics.  The separate components are then bagged up and sold.  In addition the company operates in conjunction with some retailers to operate a scheme whereby products that are rejected (if, for example they have a scratch) are tested and sold at a cheaper price.  Certain products sent from the council recycling centre are also sold on to vetted buyers.

My colleague was a little concerned about the huge amount of stuff that is unthinkingly thrown away, something that worries me constantly.  However, in this case, the alternative is that they continue to sit up on top of lockers and under shelves etc (although I believe the WEEE directive states that they should be disposed of within 12 months).  At least now the plastic has been separated and will be recycled, as will the metals and the bits that make up the circuit boards.  However, it does raise the question as to how do we make more use of our electrical products and stop just throwing them away because a newer, faster model has just been released on the market.

First Steps

Just like everyone else I have a long list of things to do / organise / put in place which really do not take much effort or time at all.  One of these things is to increase the recycling that we do at work.  I have now taken the first step and we have installed a textile bin on site to collect old textiles on behalf of the firefighters charity.  The main idea behind having the recycling bin is to give us somewhere to put old uniforms and gloves, but it is also obviously available for people to bring their old clothes etc in from home.

As well as reducing the waste going to landfill, we will be donating to a worthwhile charity and raising awareness of the amount of things that can be recycled rather than wasted.  In many ways however, this is more a case of reusing rather than recycling.  Any useful items of clothing are sent to poorer nations in Africa, and any textiles that are beyond use are reused as industrial rags etc.  It was really easy to set up and the next step is to put these bins on the rest of our UK sites.

In a separate project, a colleague of mine has found a way to recycle (or upcycle as it is more correctly known) crisp packets – which is a pretty good idea considering that an average of 5 or 6 packets are eaten per day in the office (and there are only 8 people in the office!)  They are now collected up and sent to a PO Box for the Philippine Community Fund.  They are shipped on a boat that is already going to the Philippines and there they are made into bags and purses – about thirty crisp packets making a bag (or one per week for the office).  This is intended to reduce child labour in the Philippines as it means that the children of these ladies can then go to school.

Carbon Reduction Commitment – keeping the momentum going

It is nearly a year since we started down the road of the Carbon Reduction Commitment and things have moved on quite a bit since then.   After much delay the appropriate paperwork was sent out to the qualifying companies and the registration period has arrived.  However, it would appear from various reports on the web that only about 13% of the aforementioned companies have registered.  The good news for us is that the first part of our application has been started, but I guess that is just the start.

For those of you that have missed out on all the news relating to CRC (somehow) there is an early action league table which was introduced to pacify all those companies that had put time and money into reducing their energy usage before the start of the CRC season.  There are only two parts to this though, one is to introduce automated metering (which we have, but which is fraught with its own problems and not always reliable) and the other is to apply for the Carbon Trust standard.

The Carbon Trust standard is good in many ways; it requires a continuous commitment to reduction (going back over three years) and that awareness is maintained at an individual level – they will audit one or more sites to see what is in place.  (The bad news is that it costs in the region of £12k to apply with assistance – a worthwhile investment, but not always easy to make the powers that be see the light!)

So, how do you maintain energy awareness?  I think this is one of the hardest things to do as there are often other things that take priority – after all, which site manager does not have a to do list longer than tailbacks on the M6?  When you are spending half a million pounds or more on electricity, how easy is it to persuade individuals that turning off a couple of 18W light fittings will make all the difference?  When you have done the easy projects and turn to the ones that will cost money or payback over more than 12 months how convinced are you that the justification is worth the effort if capital expenditure is being squeezed?

We are planning to run some shorter energy awareness sessions (by we, I mean I will be planning and delivering them).  I am hoping to be able to relate the spends on site to things that individuals can relate to, and not to just talk about cost cutting, but more about waste in general.  I know that there are already a number of converts, but some that will never be convinced, but I have seen at Daventry that the middle 40% can be made to think about their energy use at work.  I will let you know how successful the sessions are.

In addition to that I am displaying the energy data that is sent through each week, with an explanation where possible if there are sudden peaks or troughs, and I am putting together some more meaningful data to show the trend in usage month by month as well as a comparison to last year.  I am also resorting to the occasional bit of nagging gentle reminding so that people don’t just walk past things that have been left on – I have even noticed a growing tendency to turn lights off in the warehouse!  Once you start to think about it there are many ways to keep the momentum going, some of them even cost money.

I guess that the gist of my message is that although it appears that there may be resistance – as they say, it is futile and eventually the barriers will come down – it is just a case of thinking of different ways to get the message across – threats are not always necessary! Once bad habits are banished you from the majority the few left to be convinced will probably go along with the rest – good old peer pressure.

Next on my hitlist is a reduction in the outdoor lighting – I am in the middle of some surveys so will update you when I get some quotes.