Sustainability, to many people, refers to products, services and activities that cause less harm to the environment. Much is said in the media about 'sustainable leadership', whatever that means. So when looking at the challenges, solutions and opportunities of sustainability in relation to plastics, a good starting point is defining that word 'sustainability'.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as something “capable of enduring”. This should be enough for us all to want to be sustainable. After all, doesn't everyone want to endure - as long as possible? But it was perhaps the UN that captured the term’s true essence and implications as long as 30 years ago by defining it as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
As with many aspects of business, the innovators and early adopters had a clear grasp of what they were doing and why. They still do. One of those early innovators was a sector that in recent years has come in for criticism in the great debate on sustainability. In reality, however, the plastics sector has made a vast contribution, not only to the economy but to environmental sustainability, thanks to products that serve all walks of life, are made responsibly and are often recyclable.
This is just as well. According to figures from the Plastics Europe trade association, global production of plastics has grown 20 fold from 15 million metric tons in 1964 to 311 million metric tons in 2014. This growing output has been twinned with growing awareness of the importance of not just sustainable products, but sustainable production processes and fewer environmental impacts.
Recycling, for example, is a crucial way of reducing environmental impacts. It has become one the most dynamic areas in the plastics industry today, and for good reason: the engineering behind packaging, plastic and recycling is pretty astonishing. Our recycling plants, for example, reprocess over 70,000 tonnes of UK waste from industrial and commercial sources. With this come all the benefits of reduced oil usage, carbon dioxide emissions and quantities of waste requiring disposal.
But why sustainability and plastics make such a good fit – and one that can be overlooked or ignored – is the unique characteristics of plastics. They are lightweight, versatile and durable, allowing them to make a strong contribution to a more environmentally sustainable and resource efficient world. It's this world that is increasingly blending sustainability into the mix in all four of its corners through concepts of the waste management hierarchy and circular economy.
As concepts they promote waste avoidance and then recycling ahead of disposal, blending that crucial element into the mix: value. The shortened version of the hierarchy, ‘reduce reuse recycle’, has become a well-recognised and very worthy slogan for waste reduction, resource recovery and recycling. Along with circular economy, it has become a guiding principle on waste policy for governments, industry and environment groups.
This growing global momentum has been prompted by the plastics sector itself, alongside the policy makers and environmental groups. This is thanks to a growth in the number and diversity of technologically progressive, environment-friendly products and services. RPC bpi group introduced the world’s first triple-layer bale wrap as well as films that are made from biopolymers, which are compostable and biodegradable. This is a case study in how companies such as ours are using innovations to improve sustainability and showing that environmental sustainability and business can and do go hand in hand. Thanks to the pioneering nature of our sector, recycled plastic can now be used in almost as many applications and products as prime plastic.
These include energy-efficient solutions for packaging, construction and automotive products. Think roof tiles, eco-friendly thermal home insulation and roads: recycled plastic replaces the need for bitumen and is proving stronger and longer-lasting than normal asphalt-based roads – a highly symbolic application for our long, winding route to sustainability and where it is leading us.
Or should that be where we are leading it? Rapidly advancing technologies are without doubt boosting environment-friendly packaging solutions and plotting a course to a better world for us all. There is still room for improvement, and the plastics sector will continue to spearhead that improvement along with the wider society. And this is why the sector will help keep the UN definition of sustainability on track and as relevant in 30 years' time as it was when it was first coined 30 years ago.