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Polythene Packaging - The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

  • 13th December 2022
  • 7 min read

Plastic packaging originally started getting popular in the 1960s and has now become a part of many products in our everyday life. Despite this, the negative impacts of plastic packaging on our planet are immense. In 2021, 2.5 million metric tonnes of plastic packaging waste was generated in the UK. 

But with plastic being an integral part of our lives, is it really that bad, and what can businesses do to reduce their impact?

The impact of plastic on the environment

When plastic packaging isn’t properly disposed of, it harms wildlife, fills the sea or produces toxins as it decomposes. 

A common focus of reducing our impact on the environment is to reduce our plastic waste. However, manufacturers are now developing plastic in new ways, meaning they’re easier to recycle and have a lower impact on the environment.

For example, polythene plastic can be recycled, helping businesses to reduce their impact on the environment. 

Currently, in the UK, 2,229,000 tonnes of plastic is sent to be recycled each year. At the same time, 1,155,000 tonnes of plastic is sent to be incinerated and put in landfill each year. What’s more is that compostable and biodegradable packaging further add to this problem.

Plastic packaging and green washing 

Earlier this year, an article by The Guardian revealed that only 10% of people can effectively compost at home, which means 90% of compostable plastics end up in landfill, where they slowly break down, releasing methane. 

Because biodegradable and compostable plastics require specific processes to break down, they often end up in landfill. 

Professor Mark Miodownik, part of University College London’s Plastic Waste Innovation Hub, believes that brands marketing the use of compostable and biodegradable plastic will end up facing backlash from the public. 

I think if people continue to market home compostables, it’s greenwash. Before it was unclear, but now we have the evidence. People are making claims for material without much understanding of what has to happen in order for it to actually be biodegradable.”

But when a brand makes commitments to using recycled materials and leans towards closed-loop recycling, they’re paving the way for a more sustainable future. 

It’s time to stop giving plastic a bad wrap

It’s no secret that manufacturers and organisations across the world need to do more to minimise the impact that plastic has on the environment. And with so much negativity surrounding polythene packaging, it often ends up vilified by the media. 

However, when companies specify the right plastic, they could reduce their plastic usage by 45,000 tonnes a year, helping to save money, reduce unnecessary waste and cut CO2 output. 

From adding recycled content to their mailing bags, reducing the thickness of plastic used, and looking at whether it is possible to bring closed loop recycling in, there are many ways to improve plastic usage without compromising on product quality or brand integrity. 

The reality is, there are some applications where cardboard and paper just won’t cut it. And when specified properly, there are some instances where recyclable plastic may be better for the environment. 

Plastic - the hidden hero for food waste 

Keeping your food fresher for longer is extremely important as the UK wastes 9.5 million tonnes of food each year, yet 8.4 million people in the UK are in food poverty.

A lot of food waste comes from poor stock control in restaurants and supermarkets, where more stock is ordered than they can sell. Additionally, supply chain issues can cause delays in delivery, impacting sell-by and use-by dates.

Due to this it’s important that companies are investing in the right plastic packaging to ensure food lasts longer (which helps reduce food waste).

From being lightweight which means more can be transported in one journey (saving on carbon emissions and costs), to reducing food waste as it keeps food fresher for longer, plastic brings a lot of advantages. Brands just need to get it right. 

Creating a more plastic-positive future

Every year, roughly 300 million tonnes of plastic is wasted worldwide. But there’s a lot of research and commitment to creating a more sustainable future where plastic has a more positive place.  

For example, The waste management company Biffa has invested £27.5 million into a new state-of-the-art PET plastic recycling facility in Seaham. The plant can convert 57,000 tonnes of material per year into high-purity plastic pellets to be sold on to other manufacturers. 

The plant in Seaham is a positive start to the UK’s journey in providing sustainable solutions to recycling plastic. 

And despite plastic having significant negative impacts on the environment, there is one unlikely hero in the packaging world. The wax worm has saliva containing enzymes that break down plastic in a matter of hours. 

A journal published by Nature Communications states that the enzymes in wax worm saliva can degrade polythene, which is commonly used in plastic bags and other packaging materials. 

With polythene making up 30% of all synthetic plastic production, wax worms could have a significant impact in the way we break down plastic, as plastic doesn’t need an aggressive pre-treatment involving heat to start the breaking down process. 

How to get sustainable plastic packaging right 

Introduce a recycling policy

If you want to champion sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR) within your brand, it needs to become part of your company values. One way to do this is by introducing a clear recycling policy. 

This will help you understand the amount of plastic you’re using, what can be recycled, what can be reused, and if there are materials you can’t recycle or repurpose, you can then look at alternatives. 

Understand the plastic packaging tax 

However, using plastic within your packaging may incur a plastic tax. If you deal with over 10 tonnes of plastic a year, your company must register with HMRC. 

Any company that is manufacturing or importing plastic into the UK that contains less than 30% recycled plastic will be charged £200 per metric tonne of plastic used. 

Get to know the plastic waste process 

Plastics can be organised into different waste streams. These include:

    • Manufacturing waste - scrap or rejected plastic
    • Packaging waste - bottles, caps and containers 
    • Redundant waste - raw materials and packaging
    • End of life plastic waste - automotive materials and wheelie bin recycling
    • Baled plastic film or hard plastic cases

Waste management companies can help you assess how much plastic you use and the ways you can dispose of it.

Educate and instruct your customers 

You should also provide your customers with instructions on how to recycle your products, especially if they contain plastic. 

Adding the recycling symbol is one of the easiest ways to indicate how packaging should be disposed of, and ensures that the recycling process will be continued outside of your company. 

You should also specify whether the plastic is low density polythene (LDPE) or high density polythene, which can influence reuse and recyclability. 

To learn more about how Titan packaging can help you choose the right polythene packaging for your businesses, contact us today!

Written by: Samantha Hanson Procurement Director

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