Can a polythene product ever be classed as environmentally friendly?

Filed in Blog by on April 6, 2009 30 Comments
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recycling polythene is environmentally friendlyWe, at STM Polythene Ltd think it can! But you make your own judgement…

The facts are as follows:
Polythene is, obviously, an oil-based product, so does that mean it can never be environmentally friendly? Before you judge, you should know that the manufacture of this material uses a relatively small amount of additional carbon based energy as it is easily melted and formed and cooled with no major mechanical function involved.

Polythene is completely recyclable and can be recycled many times over; more times than paper in which the fibres degrade and become weaker – no such problems for plastic products. Even if the first use has been printed, it can be re-formed into granules, dyed and made into dark colour or black plastic products such as bin liners. Clear film can be re-formed back into more clear film, although it is slightly cloudier than a virgin product – who cares when you are saving valuable resources?

The manufacture of paper takes enormous energy resource. The virgin material is made from chipping the bark off a tree, then turning the tree trunk into wood chips and then pulping down into a fibre soup for use in paper making. Even when making recycled paper, (which takes much less energy than making virgin fibre) a modern 5 metre wide paper machine uses the equivalent energy of 50,000 domestic homes during the manufacture and drying process.

In the paper versus plastic debate, it must be pointed out that the relative weight of paper required to contain and protect an item, particularly through the mailing system, is much greater than required if polythene is used. This means greater transport costs and another negative for carbon product use.

If polythene and other plastic products were collected in greater quantity from the domestic waste stream, they would be ideal materials for many second uses when recycled; from new polythene through to plastic walkways and clothes hangers. The recycling capacity is currently insufficient in the UK to make this waste stream effective, but it could be and should be put right.

Companies, like ours, that are at the forefront of developing and producing environmentally friendly polythene products, find it difficult to source sufficient recycled film for our customers – a situation we would like to see changing! We recycle all our process waste and would like to see more polythene being returned into the system.

In addition to recycled products, we also make photo-degradable items; although these clearly won’t degrade once in landfill, they will break down in light conditions if they are littered. We also sell the ultimate environmental product; an envelope or bag that is made from potato starch which is fully compostable in 8 weeks – I know, I have tried it!

So don’t write off your polythene products; they can be good for the environment too! If you have a significant amount of polythene or polypropylene (see the marks for PE or PP) that you are struggling to find a way of recycling, then feel free to send it to us, and we will recycle it for you:

STM Polythene Ltd
21-23 Concorde Road

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  1. Mr Green says:

    Hello Esther, welcome to MyZeroWaste and thanks for a very informative article. You raise an interesting point that is often missed by the end consumer. Because paper and card is biodegradable, it is thought of as more eco-freindly than plastics like polythene. What we don’t appreciate is that paper has a high production and reprocessing cost. Although the end product may look environmentally sound, there has been a higher cost that uses more oil based energy.

    It seems like we are in a dilema with regards to some compostable bioplastics. Although environmentally they are preferrable, we see a new social problem of potential food crops being used for bioplastics instead. Maybe the photodegradable versions are better in this respect, but then there are problems of decomposition in sealed landfills.

    Which ever way we look at this, time will eventually force us to find better solutions to packaging. All our carbon based resources are limited and our consumption is out pacing renewability.

    It’s clear that you have considerable insight into the plastics and paper industry and from your article above, we would conclude that a polythene based packing is one of the best options. If this is the case, perhaps what we should do is press for better recycling facilities for polythene, so that used material can be recycled back into the production chain.

  2. John Costigane says:

    Hi Mrs Green,

    My issue with polythene is the lack of proper recycling. Rather than costing consumers the bill should be met by producers of the material. This defficiency will cause most of it to be landfilled/incinerated, a bad outcome and a Chain of Waste aspect we could well do without.

    I personally collect poythene, from posted magazines, necessary and other occasional purchases. Eventually, I will have to post it but my preference is for postage-free returns or proper local collection.

    As with other plastics, including recyclables, reduce is the best approach for Zero Waste.

  3. Hi Esther

    Could you please tell me if the PP you mention that can be posted to you is the film (crisp multipack bags) or the harder version (margarine tubs).

    Also could you tell me where I could buy the envelopes you mentioned.

  4. Mr. Green says:

    Hi John, In Esther Evan’s article above she writes

    If you have a significant amount of polythene or polypropylene (see the marks for PE or PP) that you are struggling to find a way of recycling, then feel free to send it to us, and we will recycle it for you:

    STM Polythene Ltd
    21-23 Concorde Road
    NR6 6BJ

    Now that’s a very fair invitation from one responsible manufacturer to recycle as best as possible. As Esther points out, there is not enough recovered material available for recycling, which is a situation that should be seriously addressed by government, businesses and local authorities. We also send our polythene wrapping to polyprint for recycling and there is a cost to that. Ideally we want to see polythene recycling collectors readily avialable to the general public. In addition, I think we also need better identification of recyclable plastics. For those who take an interest, the number system works well, but for the ordinary pubic, I wonder how many people could say what the recycling numbers mean and how to recycle them? If recycling is ever taken seriously, it needs to be ‘marketed’ in a way that everyone knows what it means and how to do it.

    In our local Sainsburys branch we saw a small (75 ltr) bin for recycling carrier bags and we were told on the phone that we if we wanted we could also put polythene in that bin also. That’s the extent of our local polythene recycling, which is very poor.

  5. John Costigane says:

    Hi Mr Green,

    Identification of polythene is left to the consumer with guidelines for checking but no clear labelling. We enthusiasts are way ahead of the general public on such matters and can see the difficulties they would face. The problem may never be resolved to our satisfaction.

  6. Mr. Green says:

    Agreed, John: The first step to effective education is clear communication. I’m sensing deja-vu here … We find many plastic consumerable items in our home that have no identification at all. With thin plastic, if it is not marked, we do the stretch test and if it deforms without breaking we assume its plythene. Not ideal and not a good test on thicker stronger materials. Feels like we are just throwing a valuable resource away, just because we can’t identify it 🙁

  7. Esther Evans says:

    @John Costigane: You are right about the lack of proper recycling facilities as I mention in the article. It is a crying shame that we waste all that energy resource with a one use product which can easily be recycled or even incinerated as long as energy generation is involved.

  8. Esther Evans says:

    @maisie dalziel: Hello Maisie. At STM we only have the ability to send filmic products for recycling – the sort of thing that your Sunday newspaper magazines are packaged in. I am sorry to say that we cannot accept anything that has been food contaminated or that is a rigid form plastic. Carrier bags and other polythene are fine as are the covers of greetings cards and the like which are mostly PP.
    Hope that helps!

  9. John Costigane says:

    @Esther Evans: Hi Esther, You mention incineration as if it is part of the Zero Waste agenda. One aspect I disagree with is the Chain of Waste in this burning process.

    Sustainability does not involve limitless waste production, even if the volume is decreased. The fact is that the resulting 25 years of toxic fly ash is unacceptable.

    Zero waste enthusiasts are addresssing the waste issue from the consumer perspective. It is time the other parts of the “Chain” did likewise for their waste production.

  10. Mr Green says:

    @John Costigane: I am not sure that Esther is advocating incineration as preferred way of dealing with waste, but that it is one method that can be employed with EFW benefits. Technically incineration is a recycling process that poroduces energy, which is good. The problem is that unless we use the advanced gas plasma systems, conventional incineration leaves a residue that can be more toxic than the original material.

    What I find especially insightful in Esther’s article is that overallpolythene can actually be more environmentally friendly than paper based packaging. This is a view I would have discredited a while ago, but in the light of expert opinion, I am prepared to shift my stance and learn new things.

  11. Mrs Green says:

    Hi Esther, thank you so much for taking the time to write this for us.

    As I said in my email to you, it is very thought provoking, and has certainly challenged my own way of thinking about this important issue.

    I won’t pretend it is comfortable to be given information like this, but we need people like you delivering the facts from your perspective so that we can all make more informed and empowered choices as consumers.

    Like John, I tend to baulk at the word ‘incinerator’; but I understand a manufacturer and business has a completely different perspective and set of requirements to the end consumer.

    In my perfect world, we would all reduce, reuse and recycle to such an extent that weekly household and business rubbish was minimal and not an issue for us even to be thinking about. (But then I wouldn’t have this blog to write on I guess. Hmmmmmm) 😉

    Unfortunately there are 60 million of us knocking around on this tiny island and people like us, John, Mrs A and all the other zero waste advocates make a tiny minority of the millions so landfill waste is rapidly becoming a very real issue that needs to be dealt with.

    This means that we have to be looking at **all ways** to get rid of waste.
    It is a tough call, but articles like yours help me to see things from a different angle and I thank you for this opportunity to think outside my own green box.

  12. @Esther Evans: thanks Esther,
    that was exactly what i was wanting you to say as I can recycle rigid PP (type 5) at my HWRC but not the filmic version.

  13. John Costigane says:

    @Mr Green: Hi Mr Green, Alternative technologies to EfW are certainly a better option. These are less developed but should emerge as the preferred route of waste treatment.

  14. Peter says:

    I think this is key:

    If polythene and other plastic products were collected in greater quantity from the domestic waste stream, they would be ideal materials for many second uses when recycled… The recycling capacity is currently insufficient in the UK to make this waste stream effective, but it could be and should be put right.

    We’re back to logistics in a very fractured national system.

    And if we are talking the overall reduction of emissions (that I assess under enviROI) I do wonder about the impact of this of posting waste in packaging via any mailing system. Has this been assessed for the benefit of the segregated recyclate getting to a dedicated recycler, vs. the ‘costs’ of getting it there?

    And as we are blessed with some experts here, while Mr. Green has mentioned it and there is the dilemmas of sealed vs. open systems (ie: gasses captured or vented), I was wondering if we might get some advice on the consequences and/or impacts of the various ‘bios’.

    My concerns have always revolved around what plastics degrade to, be it some soup that ends in the water table, or to possible greenhouse gasses (CO2 or, worse, methane) that surely are not optimal if not captured.

  15. Mr Green says:

    @Peter: Hello Peter, you raise several important points here and hopefully we may get some more insightful comment from others. From our part, we do post polythene in bulk to a recycler (currently polyprint) although recently we have stuffed a large ammount into the Sainsburys carrier bag collection bin. (as advised by them) If you look at the overall costs of recycling, there is nearly always an environmental cost, usually due to machinery emmissions and process residue. The most totally eco-freindly system is home composting and that has limited opportunities.

    The key is to is reduce consuming packaged products in the first place. This gives a 2 edged advantage of sending a message back to manufacturers that this product is unpopular and also providing less waste to deal with by the consumer. Sadly, this approach is demanding for the ordinary person and only a few enthusiastic people can manage it.

    A better apprach would be from the top down, ie government legislation to make producers pay for packaging waste, or better still, a cost incentive in reclaiming packing resources at the end of the consumer chain.

    These approaches are what I call ‘prevention engineering’. It appears that most of our efforts are in ‘solution engineering’, solving the problem once it’s created.

    The problem is that all solution engineering is flawed, because in effect, it needs to integrate synthetic materials back into the bio system safely. Most synthetic materials are incompatible with the natural bio-system and wether we burn, bury, hide or reuse, we nearly always get left with some harmful residue.

    For this reason, I am fully against the incineration concept and any other method that tries to ‘get rid of the beast’. Time will prove that prevention engineering was a much better way to go. My fear is that, like Frankenstein’s monster, we’ll realise too late that the thing wew created is beyond our control.

  16. Peter says:

    Ta for the reply.

    I think we are pretty much agreed.

    Especially in looking forward to sharing in the knowledge and experience of those more specialised in these fields.

    Of course, while some of us might accept it more easily, any cost impositions, not matter what the source, will end up with the consumer pocket. We are the ones ‘asking’ for such things. But it is interesting how, from commercial pressures to political ones, there does seem, how to say, some ‘reluctance’ to really ‘go there’.

    But then, it is hugely more complex and we, and the media… and especially poor consumers, can often expect things that are not quite that simple… our even ‘green’.

    I do have a slight bee (and I have a bee about bees, too) in my bonnet about vast comms budgets on recycling awareness to raise tonnages that go to officer/executive bonuses, when, IMHO, these multi-millions might have been/be better spend first on getting the systems in place to collect the stuff the public is so willing to help deliver to pretty logistically convenient doors.

    I await what comes with… anticipation.

  17. John Costigane says:

    @Mr Green: Mr Green, Prevention is always better than cure. The current problem is the drive to incineration by central government, supermarkets, waste management companies, local government agencies, media etc.

    In a recent case legal costs were handed down to an anti-incinerator group, including Friends of the Earth. This may prove a difficult ploy to overcome.

    Even if the worst case happens, my view is to maintain the plastic avoidance campaign. However the message would have to adapt to this new unwelcome reality.

  18. Mr. Green says:

    Peter, I think what you are revealing is the typical political motivation; “if it wins votes, let’s do it” We in the UK are noticably slow to see what’s in front of our face until it bites us. When it does, en-mass we go howling to government to do something about it. If the shout is loud enough it’s a vote winner and presto, it’s done. Yes, that’s simplistic, but it’s also the pattern.

    Right now, the UK politics is pretty soft on green issues. Most of our ‘motivation’ politically comes from Europe’s requirements, but I don’t see much home spun initiatives to take the lead in any major areas. Green issues are getting brighter, but our problem is we need the beast to ‘bite’ before we do anything procative. What I would call the ‘Frankenstein effect’

    Unfortunately we seem to need a crisis to wake up and smell the coffee… interestingly, maybe the bees could part of that crisis, but let’s hope when they are gone it’s not too late.

  19. Mr. Green says:

    @John Costigane: Yes, John; to avoid palstics wherever possible is the key. Untill someone creates a ‘true’ biodegradable plastic that fulfills manufacturing and biological criterias. Ha, I’ve just come back from my local co-op shop where I saw the customer in front of me accept a carrier bag for one item … a pint of milk, in plastic, with a built in handle! What can we do!

  20. Carole Blake says:

    @Mr. Green: That really annoys me! I have to bite my tongue every time…

  21. Esther Evans says:

    @Mr. Green: As I mentioned in my article, we do make one fully compostible product made from potato starch which has a lot of the same functionality as polythene. I have put several samples of this product in my own compost heap at home and all were fully composted within 8 weeks. I think this would be ideal for all sorts of household applications. We have offered this product to the marketplace for some time, but it is expensive compared to regular polythene due to the low batch sizes used to produce it and the relative difficulty of conversion. We have had no serious enquiries for it and no sales. Unfortunately, the commercial reality is that company buyers (generally speaking) cannot or will not pay more for an environmental solution.

  22. Esther Evans says:

    @Mr Green: (Just a small point to start, Polyprint are a printer and converter like ourselves and not a recycling company as such.)

    In understand completely that you feel annoyed and frustrated by the wastage of natural resources you see around you; I feel exactly the same. I have always re-used carrier bags and up until recently got a very cool reception from both the stores and fellow shoppers when getting out my clutch of used carriers to pack my shopping into – now the reverse is the case, you are made to feel like a criminal if you need one. This has been a considerable and fast change in public opinion for which organisations like yourselves must take some credit.

    I also understand your overall concerns about packaging. Again, I agree entirely that over-packaged goods are a complete waste of valuable natural resource which should be stopped; but I feel I must also put the packaging industry view-point.
    1) Food packaging prevents an enormous amount of food spoilage per year through the supply chain. Having been involved in several aspects of the packaging industry I can attest to the difference in the wastage of perfectly good food caused by poor or under-engineered packaging.
    2) The packaging industry, in conjunction with the major retailers, have for many years past been engaged in lowering and minimising the amount of packaging used. Initiatives such as the greater use of ‘dollies’ (wheeled metal cages) and plastic crates rather than boxes; reducing the weight of plastic bottles; developing tubes that stand on their cap to eliminate the need for a carton etc, etc.
    3) The European Packaging Waste Regulations do penalise all companies involved in the production and use of all packaging materials in which all companies have to pay a charge for the recycling and disposal of the products they make and use.
    4) Agriculture is, by far, the greatest user of oil based products in the economy (after energy generation of course). The use of artificial fertilisers and pesticides are all oil based materials which have all helped to ‘kill’ the natural soil structures and to eliminate all the natural balances, whether animal or vegetable. The huge machinery used; keeping animals indoors and the enormous food miles takes care of the rest.
    Of course the packaging industry must consider all impacts of what it does and produces; most are very concious of this responsibility. I would propose, however, that a far bigger threat to oil usage and sustainability (I note your comments about bees, which are a huge concern) is farming. When you hear the statistic that we use 4 calories of energy of every 1 calorie of food we produce, we all know we are in trouble.

  23. Mr. Green says:

    @Esther Evans:

    Unfortunately, the commercial reality is that company buyers (generally speaking) cannot or will not pay more for an environmental solution.

    Exactly right Esther. So much is price/cost driven. As a consumer, we find it hard to pay 25-100% more for a product, just because it meets ethical and environmental standards. It seems like we are all caught in the same money-for-value trap. After all, it is our buying habits that drive so much of the market.

    I think companies like STM Polythene Ltd have an essential part to play in leading the way to better packaging. Like all leaders, you will be in a lonely place until the crowd catch up.

    The issue of food spoilage is one we have discussed often on this site. As the global community grows, we all want access to food stuffs from across the world. Technology gives us this option through packaging methods, that inevitably use synthetic materials and chemical treatments.

    From a high birds-eye view, the diversity and complexity of waste management is immense. It can be overwhelming. At times like this all we can do is ‘think globally and act locally’.

    You mentioned the aspect of farming and hinted at some of the vast oil resources that uses. Another huge subject, although I have seen some very convincing studies on permaculture that indicate very effective yields compared to conventional methods.

    In some ways, one theoretical answer is to return to local self-sustaining communities. Ah, yes, the good old days. Except now we are smitten with choice an options galore… and I doubt many people would survive on root crops and berries during the English winter months!

  24. John Costigane says:

    @Esther Evans: Esther, There are plenty of unpackaged items on sale in supermarkets. That delivery packaging is outside the consumer’s interest in that he/she does not use it.

    Surely this is one way to reduce packaging waste further by using this type for more items. The use of home containers could be developed to transport more fine produce like rice or coconut delivered in reusable boxes. This would allow Zero Waste enthusiasts to buy a broader range from supermarkets.

    This would be a return to older practices where weighing such loose items was standard. Can it be so difficult for the supermarkets to think Zero Waste?

  25. Mr Green says:

    John, one of the problems with modern food availability is that we (all) expect a vast variety of choice. exotic fruits, fresh sald in winter etc. Packaging methods like MAP (modified air packaging) Co2 storage, pasturisation, air extraction and irridation all reaquire careful atmostpheric control around the produce to prevent subsequent oxidation. That means hermetically sealed plastics very often.

    If we all were happy to eat seasonally and locally, most packaging issues could be avoided as you point out. However, there is a company in London called Unpackaged that leads the way in loose food, so to speak!!!

  26. John Costigane says:

    @Mr Green: Mr Green, That is a very promising link, with Catherine Conway allowing containerised purchases of loose items. This could be repeated throughout the UK, even under a Zero Waste title. I will contact her for more information.

    When such a venture succeeds the generality of sellers could be forced to adapt practice.

    I take the point about sealed packages from abroad, yet I can buy exotic, or foreign, produce loose in stores, pineapples, grapefruit, apples, lemon, limes etc. The packaging for these items are outside the consumer’s orbit, so are Zero Waste for us. If these are largely reusable for suppliers/superstores then Zero Waste is possible for them as well.

  27. Di says:

    I really don’t think there is a paper/plastic debate anymore. The savvy consumer is opting for reusable long term items like fabric bags instead. More and more people are realizing the first R – REDUCE! That has the greatest impact of ANY of the three R’s. Stop buying the plastic in the first place and recycling shouldn’t be an issue!
    Compostable/enivironmentally friendly plastic ISN’T the preferred option, that would be not using it in the first place! Sorry but whilst I agree it’s a step in a recycling direction it’s not a step in the RIGHT direction. As a world we’ve become too reliant on a product that is killing us and our planet. It’s time we stopped.

  28. Mr Green says:

    Hello Di, thanks for your comment. I like your strong opinion, but I think your comment here

    I really don’t think there is a paper/plastic debate anymore. The savvy consumer is opting for reusable long term items like fabric bags instead.

    is absolutely true, however, the ‘savvy consumer’ is still a minority, although thankfully growing!

    Unless society returns to local community farming, there will always be a need for good packaging that prevents food spoiling because of short shelf life. Plastic is an insidious product that has revolutionised our lives on the outside and yet carries a great cost to the environment.

    There are many committed folks like us that do our best to reject the plastic packaging, but our contribution is pitiful compared with the billions of consumers over the world that care nothing for the consequences.

    I personally think there is a debate, because despit our best efforts, plastic will not go away untill the oil runs dry. In the mean time we need to find a viable solution to plastics manufacturing that satisfies both human and environmental criterias.

  29. Anthony says:

    The issue of too much packaging is a side show…encouraged by succesive governments..having too many people on this planet will be the killer…if you are serious about saving the planet, stop paying people for having children, pay them for not having children…less people breeds less packaging …whatever the flavour..

  30. Mr Green says:

    @Anthony: Hi Anthony, thanks for your thought on this … I think this is an important issue, I mean what’t behind the problem and driving it? Ultimately you are right, over population supports all the ‘excess’ issues we see today. Too many people doing too many things. Ads a species we are over running the planet ands that will ultimately take its toll. Unfortunately there are problems with population control. If we look to China who have a one child per couple policy, we see severe social unrest because of it. The Chinese government introduced the policy in 1979 to alleviate social, economic, and environmental problems in China, However, if the first child is a girl, couples sometimes feel very upset that they can’t have more children. Ok, the PRC are somewhat draconian about this and there may be better ways to manage it.

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