Plastic – how green can it be?

PLASTIC AND THE ENVIRONMENT

The environmental impact of using plastic is an issue we have to address on an ever more frequent basis, as more and more customers seek “cleaner” and more sustainable options for their printed plastic products.

Informed, or you could argue misinformed, observation and general public opinion, has demonised plastic to such an extent that a considered assessment of the pros and cons of its use has become almost impossible. There is no doubt that there is a limit to the amount of crude oil, the source of most plastics, that can be extracted until eventually the world’s reserves will be exhausted. There is also a need to ensure that plastic waste does not end up adding to the world’s ever-increasing landfill requirement. However, these issues should be considered in context and, bearing in mind that there is currently no substitute for “plastic” in many applications, a more sustainable and renewable approach to plastic and its use has to be developed.

Oil-based plastics have become an integral part of our modern lifestyle; from the generic plastic card, to food containers, to medical instruments, modern plastic in its many forms is versatile, durable, cost-effective and, in many applications, irreplaceable. However, plastic has increasingly become associated with a throw-away mentality and a growing mountain of waste. The challenge for us all, in view of there currently being no viable alternative, is to manage our use of plastic in the future by developing “greener” renewable and sustainable sources, recycling wherever possible, and educating marketeers and consumers alike.

Consider this….

We’ve all heard about the drawbacks of plastic – non-sustainability, potentially harmful chemical by-products, waste – but there are some unavoidable facts that should not be ignored:

Plastic is produced from a by-product created through refining crude oil for fuel. Oil is not extracted from the earth purely for the purpose of making plastic.

Plastic has the potential to be recycled in almost every case. If suitable facilities existed nationally and internationally, there would be no need for plastic to be disposed of in landfill.

Biodegradable (starch-based) plastics do not currently offer the versatility necessary to suit every potential application, nor are they widely available in sufficient quantity to satisfy demand. They are also energy-intensive in manufacture and many only break down in an industrial composting environment so, as with most oil-based plastics, specialist recycling facilities are required.

What are the choices?

From our point of view, achieving a high quality print image is paramount and, to this end, we need to use the best quality plastics available. We also need plastics that are suited to their application – durability/flexibility for packaging, rigidity for plastic cards, clarity for window stickers – otherwise the product will be denied the specific properties that make plastic so versatile and adaptable. Our customers expect a high quality product, supplied cost-effectively and within a reasonable time and, although the eco-credentials of a job are an important factor to be considered, commercial constraints often dictate the substrate that’s used.

Recycled PVC and polypropylene are becoming available, whilst PETG offers a more eco-friendly alternative to PVC for some applications. PLA, which is made from corn starch, is both sustainable and biodegradable (in a suitable environment), but a limited product range and restricted availability make it unsuitable for many uses.

Until the new generation of sustainable and renewable, biodegradable, recycled and starch-based plastics have developed to such an extent that there is a viable alternative for all printed plastic applications, we will be forced to continue using oil-based plastics. However, the recycling industry is making massive strides in the detailed sorting and recycling of plastic waste, which will severely reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in landfill. Add to this the research and development that is going on in the realms of bioplastics, and it is possible to imagine a future where all plastics are both recyclable (in its many forms) and sustainable.

Unfortunately, current recycling procedures are far from perfect. Incorrectly identified plastics can spoil the process, so it is important that all plastic products are clearly identifiable and that most plastic waste is recycled, not just drinks bottles, food cartons, etc. This is sure to eventually become standard practice and as the recycling industry reaches maturity, new processes will maximise the percentage of plastic waste that is reprocessed and re-used.

Where do we go from here?

There is no doubt that, even allowing for the current economic uncertainty, new “plastics” will be developed in the coming years to reduce our dependency on non-renewable oil-based plastics. “Bioplastics” will eventually become mainstream materials, with properties as varied and versatile as their oil-based cousins. Research has shown that marine algae, correctly harvested and processed, represent the greatest potential as a source of almost unlimited sustainable plastic, doing away with the millions of hectares of maize that would have to be grown to supply the demand for corn-starch based PLA. With a concerted will, economic necessity and substantial investment, there can be an almost seamless transition from oil-based to predominantly renewable sources. Add to this an effective system of recycling and the future is bright for plastic.

Sometimes plastic is the only answer, particularly when producing POS, promotional products and packaging, and the Luddite view of doing away with it altogether is implausible. Plastic will inevitably become more “eco-friendly” in time, but we need to develop a mind-set whereby plastic is accepted and developed in a positive manner and re-use and recycling replaces the current disposable culture that prevails.

This article can be found in full on our Blog at http://plasticprinter.blogspot.com

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