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Are we seeing the end of ‘single-use’ plastics? Process manufacturing companies need to review their business strategies now. What started as an eco-issue has rightly gathered pace and manufacturers need to rethink their product strategy, the way they manufacture and the way they package their products as the pressure on providing alternative solutions has already started.

A brief history lesson

It is believed that the first commercial plastic was invented by Leo Baekeland in New York in 1907 (Bakelite). However, Alexander Parkes, an inventor from Birmingham, England, created Parkesine (celluloid) in 1862, which is, by some, often recognized as the first ever man-made plastic.

Plastics were low cost and easy to manufacture into a multitude of shapes and forms and, being impervious to water, plastics were hailed as the wonder material that kept our food products safe, our liquids from leaking and reduced the cost of expensive metal containers for over 100 years. But has that bubble burst?

2018 — Things are changing rapidly

Single-use plastics were once applauded but are now being shunned and seen as a blight on our land and in our oceans.

A day doesn’t go by without a new headline forcing change:

And it’s not just the food industry making the headlines. Plastics are used in many consumer products, cosmetics and healthcare, light-weight plastic bags, beverage containers, coffee capsules, toys, razor blades and plastic cutlery.

Some definitions

Single-use plastics are plastic materials that are disposable and generally used only once before they are thrown away or recycled. Interestingly, the only people who throw plastics away are us, humans!

Almost all plastics can be recycled in some manner. So, what’s the difference between recyclable, recoverable, biodegradable and compostable and what exactly is a bio-plastic? Hopefully, this will make things clearer:

  • Recycling: The collecting, cleaning and either converting it to be used as itself or to be converted into pellets, which are used to make other plastic products like chairs, imitation wood, even road surfaces. etc.
  • Recoverable: Put simply, burned as a fuel to create heat and steam to generate electricity.
  • Biodegradable: Often referred to as bio-based or degradable, the product will break down completely in the natural environment through the action of naturally occurring microorganisms but may leave a toxic residue. This is because the material only has to contain a percentage of degradable material, which allows it to break down the entire structure, leaving microparticles of non-degradable material.
  • Compostable: Capable of undergoing biological decomposition in a compost site such that the plastic is not visually distinguishable and breaks down to carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass, at a rate consistent with known compostables and leaves no toxic residue. These materials cannot be simply thrown into your compost bins, they need to be taken to industrial composting sites.
  • Bio-Plastics polymers: Bio-based polymers or bio-plastics are plastics derived from renewable biomass sources, such as vegetable fats and oils, corn starch, etc. The key feature of bioplastics is that they are compostable: they decay into natural materials that blend harmlessly with soil.

The effects on today’s manufacturers

The bioplastics industry is growing rapidly and will continue to accelerate due to the pressures being excerpted by social media and now by major manufacturers, retailers and government bodies. The current market is about $28 billion but expected to rise to $300 billion within 10 years, and I think that is likely to be surpassed.

So, should manufacturers be worried? The simple answer is no. The range of bio-plastics today offer similar, if not better, performance characteristics than their fossil fuel equivalents. But it is time to start planning since the reduction of single-use plastics in our products is likely to turn from a trend into a disruptor, and for those not able to react or change quickly enough, the future will be uncertain. So, it’s not just accepting that things will change but also ensuring that systems are in place to support that change.

I welcome comments on this or any other topic concerning process manufacturing.

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