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.

Daventry Environment Business Network

In many ways I feel lucky to live in Daventry, although there are probably a lot of people who think I must have received a severe blow to the head to come out with such a statement.  However, I do feel that in terms of the environment the District Council is trying quite hard to engage both households and business (after all, they were the first council to reach government targets for recycling years before the deadline).  One of the things that they are trying to do to engage local businesses is run the Environment Business Network (EBN).  It meets at different businesses four times a year, with a different theme each time.  It allows the opportunity to meet others and have a round table discussion of issues, successes, problems etc, and also allows a look round the different businesses – something that you would not usually do.  What I have found really useful is the discovery that there are other people at different stages of their environmental voyage – without the EBN it is easy to think that you are ploughing a lone furrow.  I have found a whole host of help and resources through participation in the EBN – if someone can’t help you directly they can often send you to someone that can.

Today’s breakfast meeting was at DHL Mothercare – a huge warehousing facility on the DIRFT (Daventry International Rail Freight Terminal) estate.  The theme of the day was waste minimisation.  After introductions there was a talk by someone from DHL outlining their efforts so far at waste reduction, followed by a waste quiz by RUR3.   Before we left we had a tour around the site.

So, what did I learn.  Firstly, in common with other businesses, DHL had a lot of obvious cost reductions that they could make.  The first was lighting which has helped them to halve their electricity bill.  It was a combination of power reduction (replacing the horrid metal halide hi bay lighting with strips) and controllability (wiring lights to individual controls and adding in sensors).  I must say, it was a huge warehouse with an incredibly high roof, and it did not appear to be badly lit at all (although it was daytime, it was not exactly Springlike weather today).  They have also reduced their water spend by going for waterless urinals (there is apparently a very good report comparing systems which I would like to get a copy of) and are busy reducing their waste to landfill.  They compact both plastic and cardboard and get paid for both – I will be investigating cardboard balers in the next 6 months as we are currently paying to have it taken away – although we don’t deal in such large amounts of waste, I think we should at least get it taken away for free.

Following the waste quiz (did you know that if every person in an office used one less staple each day then we would save 72 tonnes of metal?) it was noticeable how many people have problems getting rid of small amounts of waste such as cardboard and pallets.  It would appear that the council does not have the facilities for this, but perhaps it should put a forum on its website so companys can get together and have joint collections – I think I will suggest it.

The tour of the warehouse was interesting even if it was only to show the sheer scale of the warehousing business – and this is only one of the many massive warehouses on the DIRFT site.  What I noticed most was the amount of packaging that they had to recycle – and this is just a distribution warehouse – they do not make anything (I guess most is imported) although they do deal with returns.  There was, literally, tonnes of the stuff, over 900 tonnes of cardboard every year if I remember correctly.  The other thing that sprang to mind as we walked around the warehouse was the amount of plastic ‘stuff’ that was around.  There were all sorts of imported (probably) plastic (definitely) things – toys, baby accessories, all sorts of stuff.  Whilst it is all very well business recycling packaging, using reusable packaging (usually plastic), reducing packaging, surely it would be better (for the environment if not the economy) if consumers changed their habits and reduced their requirements for stuff and its attendant packaging.

Baby Steps

Today is Blog Action Day, the theme this year is Climate Change, influenced no doubt by the upcoming Copenhagen summit.  These days it is hard to go through an entire day without finding a reference to Climate Change or Energy Saving, the Energy Saving Trust even has an annoying advert on the television.  I am not sure how much all of the reminders and the small snippets that appear on the news will make a difference.  I think there are two major problems; firstly people get bored with hearing about how we are all doomed, there is often the feeling that there are enough things to think about in life as it is, why worry about climate change when there is nothing we can do about it anyway?  It is everyone else that is causing the problem, besides, the worst will happen elsewhere in the world, and probably not in my lifetime.

Then we come to the second problem: what can you do about it that will make a difference?  There is so much information out there, some of it conflicting, that it can be difficult to know where to start and who to believe, no matter which level you are at in terms of ‘green-ness’ it can be confusing.  It is probably easier to not bother yet, better wait until more information is out there, until the ‘experts’ make their minds up.

The problem is, time is ticking and we all have a responsibility, why waste resources when it is just as easy not to, why waste money just because it is too much effort to turn a light out when leaving a room?  If you can make the changes at home then take these good and virtuous habits to work – your example can make a difference, I have seen it happen.

So what practical changes can you make?  How long have you got?  Everything you use, whether it is energy, water, fuel, food, resources such as paper, they are all, to some extent, finite, we can’t replace them all at the same rate that we are using them, and the planet cannot absorb all of our activities as they currently stand.

Firstly, energy.  Turn lights off, don’t leave things on standby, only leave your mobile etc plugged in for as long as it takes to charge (you’d be amazed at how many people leave them in overnight – they don’t stop drawing power because the battery is fully charged), turn your computer and monitor off when you leave work.  One of the best things you can do is to buy an energy monitor – they will help you find where energy is being wasted.  Want to think bigger – try switching energy supplier to one that uses renewables – they may not be the complete answer to our problem at the moment, but the more that is invested the bigger the improvements that will be made in the technology.

Water – old fact, but, 9 litres of water for every flush if you don’t have a dual flush toilet, put a bottle of water in the cistern to reduce the level down, save water and money at the same time.  Fit a water butt to your drainpipe to use for garden watering – they may look a bit unsightly, but, lets face it, so do satellite dishes, but most of us find somewhere to put one.  Don’t leave a sprinkler on your garden for hours – grass is hardy stuff, that’s why it is used for lawns, it doesn’t need constant watering and nobody else notices how green your lawn is!

Fuel – School run- why are there so many people dropping their children off?  Can’t they walk, I worry more about people being run over by someone on the school run than about other dangers facing children today.  How about just walking to work once a week for a change.  I would suggest public transport, but in Daventry, unless you are willing to set off 24 hours in advance it is a little pointless.  Planes – I love planes, I think they are a fantastic feat of engineering – but they are used too much and deliver their pollution to just the wrong place.  I can’t go on one again, maybe you can, but just one return transatlantic trip would double our household carbon footprint for the year (in terms of gas, electricity and transport) – I don’t think it is worth it.

Food – one of my major worries.  Why buy food only to throw it away?  There is a lot of talk in the press about food security and can Britain feed itself.  We probably can’t, we probably shouldn’t, our national income increased when we started trading with the world; there are some things that can be done better elsewhere.  But there are things we are good at growing, and, if we stopped throwing so much away we could grow all the staples that we need.  After all, the Romans didn’t invade us all those years ago because they were fed up of living somewhere dry and sunny!

Resources – whether it is paper in the office, packaging on our food, why is there so much that we are throwing away?  Admittedly the levels of recycling have grown massively, and Daventry District Council should be applauded for its household recycling (although, if you are a business, tough, you have to sort that out yourself), but wouldn’t it be better to just use less.  Does your broccoli really need a bag to make sure it gets home safely, does your Easter Egg need so much cardboard and plastic that your child could live in it?  I don’t think so.

So, what has this to do with Baby Steps?  If we all make a small change, one step at a time it will make a difference.  Then, if we make the next step, and the next step who knows what kind of change we can make?  There are so many resources out there if you need help.  If, as recently reported, the onset of power shortages has been put back by 3 -5 years because of the recession, an unintentional change in our habits, what can we do if we really try?

Interesting Articles

Just thought that I would post a quick summary of a few articles that I found in the last couple of weeks that I thought were interesting.

The BBC website has reported on the latest proof that the Thames is getting cleaner – the discovery that short snouted seahorses, normally found in the Mediterranean have been discovered living and breeding at three sites along the river.

New Scientist has recently reported that bamboo fibres can act as an antibacterial agent and protect against UV, although there is apparently some dispute about this. However, as someone who owns several bamboo t-shirts (purchased from I can certainly say that they are very comfortable, seem to wick sweat away better than other t-shirts and also seem to reduce static. This supplier also claims high environmental and ethical credentials.

In the Times dated 8th April 2008 there was an article stating that as a nation we apparently throw away 4.5 million apples every day – I found that truly shocking (I thought at first they meant 4.5 million per year and had to read the article twice).
The full report is due to be published by WRAP (Waste Resource Action Plan) next month. In addition we are apparently throwing away 5.1 million potatoes and 1.6 million bananas. When added together the average household throws away £400 of food every year. This is at the same time as people are claiming they cannot afford to feed their families with fresh, local, free-range or organic food.

Also in the Times (dated 11th April 2008) there was an article about the nation’s railways. I was surprised to learn that last year passengers travelled 30 billion miles on our much maligned rail network, more than any other year in peacetime. This is despite rising prices and delays. The article was highlighting a report from the Association of Train Operating Companies which included a vision for 2057 by which time it is expecting passenger numbers will have trebled. This calls for high speed rail lines to Scotland along the east and west coasts and another to Cardiff as well as a number of other links operating at conventional speed. Unfortunately the government (and this seems to be the case whatever the flavour) seem relatively non-commital about rail travel and its ability to alleviate congestion and overcrowding in the South East and seem to have developed a grand total of 0 plans for the long term, although they may think about commissioning a study some time.