Plastics: Telling the whole story

The plastics industry creates products that enable modern life, provides solutions for critical environmental issues, such as climate change, and has a strong record of delivering on voluntary commitments.

Operation Clean Sweep, a voluntary, industry-led initiative, minimises the risk of plastic raw materials escaping from manufacturing facilities. SIMPL is our highly successful, industry-led initiative to improve health and safety practices. VinylPlus, a voluntary commitment made by the European PVC industry to the European Commission, has significantly increased the recycling rates of long-life building products.

We also have one of the largest climate change agreements, with more than 450 manufacturing sites participating. It has saved thousands of tonnes of CO2 emissions and significantly reduced the energy used in the manufacture of plastics products.

Our innovations have reduced the amount of plastic needed in packaging too. If you were to compare a two-litre drinks bottle to another from 20 years ago, you would be shocked at how much heavier the older bottle is. The per capita consumption of plastics packaging in the UK went down 10 per cent in weight between 2011 and 2016 and the average weight of a plastic bottle has halved over the past decade.

When it comes to recycling, an under-reported fact is that the UK is recycling more than 74 per cent of its plastics drinks bottles, beating comparable products made from other materials.

The plastics industry is a UK success story. In terms of employment, we are the third-largest manufacturing sector in the UK, providing jobs for more than 166,000 people. Our success rests upon a material that is versatile, lightweight and strong, reducing the weight of vehicles and cargo and, crucially, reducing CO2 emissions.

Plastic is an essential material in modern technology and healthcare products, while also offering light, durable and recyclable products for the construction industry. It is commonly used for packaging because it is extremely resource efficient and protects products in ways no other material can. The CO2 impact of the products it preserves and protects is generally far greater than the packaging itself. Without packaging, food waste can be as high as 50 per cent during transportation.

The plastics industry should therefore be recognised for its positive contribution in reducing CO2 emissions and food waste. But the elephant in the room is marine litter, a global issue that obviously needs a solution. In fact, the UK is responsible for less than 0.2 per cent of the plastic in the sea. This doesn’t absolve us of responsibility, but any measures need to be evidence based and proportionate. Plastic once helped save the elephant from extinction by replacing ivory used in snooker balls. Today, our industry can help leave the environment in a better state for future generations.

The industry already pays what is effectively a plastics tax under the existing Producer Responsibility obligations for recovery and recycling. For years, we have argued that this needs reform to discourage the export of plastic waste.

We need far more investment in our recycling infrastructure, to standardise the vast number of different local collection schemes and to invest in innovative technologies such as chemical recycling. Emerging technology like this could stop any plastic product from presenting a challenge to recyclers. We are also working to ensure every plastic packaging product is designed with recyclability in mind.

The plastics industry is a responsible industry providing products that are vital to our modern lives, vital to our economy and that vastly reduce CO2 emissions. We shouldn’t damage the competitiveness of a British success story by introducing populist taxes that may undermine it, with no guarantee funds will be invested where they are badly needed.

The best outcome for the environment rests on an objective evaluation of the evidence and collaboration between many stakeholders. So let’s remember the huge, positive contribution of plastics and the plastics industry as we continue to improve the way we use this wonderful material.

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