In order for a product or material to be truly described as sustainable it must be environmentally, economically and socially sustainable. These aspects have become known as the Three Pillars of Sustainability. Plastics make a positive contribution to all three pillars of sustainability.
Plastics make an immense contribution to the environmental sustainability through their energy saving potential and intrinsic recyclability and energy recovery options. Economically plastics form an important part of the UK economy and are a major export product. Socially the plastics industry is a major and inclusive employer with an attention to training and education.
Plastics have a very good environmental profile. Only 4% of the world’s oil production is used for plastics and much less energy is used to produce it compared to other materials. Plastics are durable yet lightweight and thus save weight in cars, aircraft, packaging and pipework. When plastics have completed their use phase, whether as a car bumper or a bottle, they can either be recycled or if this is not economic or environmentally beneficial the calorific value of the plastic can be recovered through energy from waste incineration to provide a much source of home-grown power. As a consequence, plastics can be viewed as ‘borrowing’ the oil.
Plastics are essential in modern day healthcare. Plastics products are used in surgery, healthcare products, pharmaceuticals, drug delivery systems and medical packaging.
- Essential medical applications include:
- Blood bags
- Fluid bags
- Heart and Lung bypass sets
- Blood transfusion sets
- Blood vessels in artificial kidneys
- Surgical gloves
- Endotracheal tubing
Plastics take a major contribution to the UK economy and a healthy manufacturing sector is vital to a sustainable economy.
Plastics contribution to the UK economy:
- Circa 7400 plastics companies in UK.
- The industry turnover is approximately £17 billion.
- Plastics are a much need source of export revenue with circa £4.5 billion in exports.
- For many plastics products, especially construction related products, the whole supply chain is situated within the UK.
Plastics recycling takes place on a significant scale in the UK and there is considerable research conducted to discover the most efficient ways to recycle. Raw materials have a high value and are a precious resource, so to conserve both money and the environment the industry makes every effort to recover as much as possible.
An alternative to recycling is to recover plastics thermal content through energy from waste incineration, providing an alternative source of energy. The average value for polymers is 38 mega joules per kilogram (MJ/kg), which compares favourably to the equivalent value of 31 MJ/kg for coal. This represents a valuable resource raising the overall calorific value of domestic waste which can then be recovered through controlled combustion and re-used in the form of heat and steam to power electricity generators.