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In order for a product or material to be truly described as sustainable it must be environmentallyeconomically and socially sustainable.                                                                These aspects have become known as the Three Pillars of Sustainability. Did you know that 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.

Environmental Sustainability

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.

Economic Sustainability

Plastics make 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 also have a role to play at a micro-economic level:

  • Plastics products are very cost effective to produce and provide the ability to make single moulded components in complex shapes. This significantly reduces costs associated with assembly and the use of fixtures.
  • Plastics products also provide whole life cost savings:
  • Reduced fuel use in transit due to their lightweight.
  • Reduced maintained requirements, for example PVC windows do not require painting.
  • Reduced energy required for heating when plastics insulation is used.
  • Reduced food and consumer goods wastage due to the unparalleled protective properties of plastics packaging.
  • The plastics industry is a leader in research and development, and innovation.
  • Plastics materials and applications are constantly developed and improved
  • Significant industrial research and development is supported by a University infrastructure of polymer or polymer engineering departments (including Polymer – IRC)
  • Polymer Innovation Network (PIN) formerly Faraday Plastics plays a leading role promoting innovation.

Social Sustainability

Completing the final pillar of sustainability, plastics are also socially sustainable;

  • The UK plastics industry is socially inclusive and offers a wide range of worthwhile careers with considerable room for career development, progression and training.
  • Plastics companies are geographically widely distributed across the UK and provide jobs to some 180,000 people.
  • The plastics industry has a superb industry health & safety record as demonstrated by British Plastics Federation (BCF) accident survey statistics.
  • Plastics make a major contribution to safety, the used plastics in cars, for example, reduces weight and allows for the addition of safety features such as airbags. Furthermore, plastic foams such as EPS and EPP provide the necessary shock absorbency to be used in life saving devices such a bicycle helmets.

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
  • Catheters
  • Endotracheal tubing

There is no doubt that the plastics crisis is a serious issue, and that we need to encourage a change in attitude towards the single-use mindset of society. But we have to keep in mind the environmental and economic benefits that plastics offer, and use innovation to find a solution. By adapting the way plastics are produced to become more environmentally friendly, we can help reduce the impact this key material has on the planet.

Supported by a need for change in culture, mindset, behaviour and education to prevent the discard of used articles, promote recycling in everyday lives and protect raw materials that have a high value and are a precious resource, so to conserve both money and the environment both the industry and society needs to make every effort to recover as much as possible.


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