Ever since the plastic revolution around 60 years ago, it’s been used to make just about everything we use. It’s cheaper, lighter and easier to produce than alternatives. And that’s why plastic has such a firm grip on today’s world.
The global production and consumption of plastics, and in particular first-use or ‘virgin’ plastics, has risen year on year since mass production began. Figures from 2019 show that plastics production on a global level reached around 368 million metric tonnes. While the production of plastics and by-products damages the environment, it’s the waste removal that causes most problems.
Recycling packaging and other plastics is a huge global challenge
China accounts for almost a third of plastics production, but the US and Europe are also major consumers and producers. And it’s worth noting that China also exports $50 billion of plastic to the US and Europe.
From single use plastic bottles to plastics in cigarette butts, manufacturing materials, clothes, toiletries, packaging and just about everything else, everything we touch has plastic connected with it in some way.
Environmentally, the scale of plastic manufacture and use is catastrophic. Plastic waste lasts for centuries in landfill and often just does not decompose. It is now part of the natural environment, with our oceans, rivers and soils saturated in plastic.
From the very first moment of production, plastic starts to harm the environment. Production is energy intensive and, when it’s produced, it lasts for hundreds of years. Disposing of it is expensive, challenging and damaging. Every single day billions of plastic products are thrown away as landfill. From there, plastic drains into our drains, into rivers and finally into the sea.
How plastics impact our environment
- Every single day, the seas are hit with eight million pieces of plastic pollution.
- Just 9% of plastic waste is recycled, with 12% incinerated and 79% sent to landfills or directly to the sea.
- Around 51 trillion microplastics infest the world’s oceans.
- Around 5,000 items of plastic pollution have been found per mile of beach in the UK.
- Plastic has been found up to 11km deep in the oceans.
- Globally, we produce 381 million tonnes of plastic waste every year.
- Every single baby turtle has plastic in their digestive system.
- More than one million seabirds and more than 100,000 marine animals die directly due to plastic pollution each year.
The difficulties in recycling plastic means that many developed countries simply ship it off to Africa and Asia. The most useful and obviously recyclable bits of plastic are used again for packaging, but the majority is burned, which releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide and carcinogenic chemicals into the atmosphere.
How is the UK tackling the problem of plastics and packaging recycling?
In the UK alone, the Government estimates five million tonnes of plastic are used every single year. And half of this is packaging. So, what is being done? The UK Government says that it has the ‘ambition’ of reaching a target of zero avoidable waste by 2050 and a ‘target’ of getting rid of avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042.
The most obvious manifestation of the 2018 Resources and Waste Strategy so far is the banning of plastic straws which came into force in England in October last year. The UK is also signed up to international programmes that want to reduce plastic in the sea, such as the Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance.
However, as a country we generate approximately 2.4 million tonnes of plastic packaging waste every single year, most of which comes from households. Recycling this packaging waste and using it to make other new plastic items keeps the economy going, keeps it out of landfill and reduces the use of virgin plastic.
Plastic packaging from households comprises plastic bottles and mixed plastics packaging, which includes flexible film and rigid packaging. There is a very long way to go to reach the Government’s targets as we only recycle about half of the plastic bottles used and 15% of mixed plastics, according to WRAP.
Initiatives underway in the business community
A number of high-profile initiatives are also in place to change the way plastics are produced, used, reused, disposed of and recycled. The initiatives involve every necessary stakeholder from along the plastics chain. The initiatives include:
- Plastics Pact – a business collaboration with a target of getting rid of single-use plastic packaging, to make all plastic packaging reusable, compostable or recycle and for 70% to be composted or recycled by 2025.
- Plastics Industry Recycling Action Plan (PIRAP) – industry action plan to increase the collections of recyclable plastics, improve sorting and create workable end markets for recycled products.
- UK Circular Plastics Network (UKCPN) – brings together users of plastic products through an extensive network of knowledge sharing and networking events.
DPD UK’s recycling, packaging and plastic policies
At DPD, work has been underway for a number of years to completely change its packaging. The company provides 36 million plastic packages every year to keep customers’ goods protected. As part of the overall drive towards sustainability, DPD UK began working with customers to slash the number of plastic bags used. Furthermore, a major and important change was made in the manufacture of the bags themselves. They are now made from 80% reclaimed material and are completely recyclable.
Working in partnership with specialist provider Povoas, DPD UK began developing a 100% recyclable packaging bag in 2018. It had to be strong and secure enough to function as proper protection, and while bags made from 100% reclaimed material were trialled, they were too thin to function properly. Povoas found the best solution with the bags we now use, which are made from agricultural waste.
Internally, DPD UK also dispensed with single-use plastics wherever possible. In 2020, more than 20,000 people were given a reusable metal water bottle to replace single use plastic bottles. The company estimates (based on DPD UK team members filling their bottle twice a day on average) that this has reduced the need for around 3.75 million plastic bottles. To keep DPD drivers hydrated when they’re out and about, an innovative app called Refill is promoted internally.
In 2020, DPD UK recycled 260 tonnes of shrink wrap through a brilliant new initiative. Any shrink wrap used in DPD operations is now retained at the central hub. It’s then reprocessed back into raw plastic, which is sold. The money made from this goes directly into the DPD Eco Fund to support even more green initiatives throughout the UK.