Can plastic be used in an eco-friendly way?

With landfills swelling and the ocean suffering, it has become easy to find one area to blame. Plastic has become the new target, alongside many years fossil fuel usage being highlighted as another culprit. But how accurate is this sour sentiment towards plastic?
Photo: Bank of England

In this article, rapid tooling specialists Omega Plastics explore how plastics have had a positive impact on the environment too, which allows you to see both sides of this critical point of discussion.

Between then and now

Recycling wasn’t a priority for many people before the 21st century. However, thanks to a continued push to go green, we’re now more aware of the waste we produce. In 2001, just 12.5% of household waste in England was recycled. This figure climbed to 44.9% in 2014, and rose again to 45.2% in 2016, which is drawing closer to the EU’s target of 50% by 2020 target.

The UK’s change in attitude regarding environmental matters has led to a change in plastic production. Nowadays, companies actively look for recyclable plastics for their products and packaging, building an impressive corporate social responsibility to set them apart from their competitors. According to the British Plastics Federation, 32% of plastic is recycled and 70% is recovered. In the past, only certain types of plastics have been recycled. Now, as technology develops, recyclable plastics can be created, which serve the same purpose, but are more environmentally friendly.

With new technical advancements and shifting perceptions, plastics have now been developed and improved with end-of-life waste in mind. In short, the impact has been reduced — plastic isn’t the same enemy as it has been in the past.

Improving plastic production

Improved plastic production methods have altered the impact of plastic creation. However, this isn’t just in terms of minimising waste. Plastic injection moulding is a popular manufacturing method as, through using moulds, multiple plastic products can be created with precision. The process involves specialist machinery which, because the plastic needs to be melted, can consume a lot of energy. However, over the past 10 years, the machines have become more refined and now use between 20% and 50% less energy than they once did. This is just one way the production of plastic has been improved. The benefits are widespread.

Alternative uses for plastic

Where plastic has been the leading packaging material in the UK, we are now discovering more uses for it. While many may argue that this increased plastic consumption has a negative effect on the environment, it can actually prove beneficial in the long term. The motoring industry is a perfect example of this. Instead of using metal for the production of some parts, many car manufacturers are turning to polymers instead. Not only are these more affordable, they are lighter too, reducing the overall weight of the vehicle. This can have a positive impact on fuel efficiency and energy savings, minimising the use of fuels in the future.

Plastic has also found uses as a building material. Through using plastics to create insulation and double glazing, we are able to conserve heat and prevent the non-essential warming of homes and businesses.

Of course, a great example of plastic’s helpful uses to the environment come with the switch from paper to plastic bank notes. The polymer £5 note, features Sir Winston Churchill. The polymer £10 note sports Jane Austen, and the upcoming polymer £20 set to be released in 2020 will bear the portrait of J. M. W. Turner. Of the currently released polymer notes, they are 15% smaller than their predecessors, making the production more energy efficient. They are also more environmentally friendly as they are far more durable than paper notes. According to The Carbon Trust, the polymer £5 has a 16% lower carbon footprint than its paper version.

Plastic can be eco-friendly, but like with any material, it’s about finding the right way of using it. With increased technological advancements, plastics are set to become even more eco-friendly.

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