INSIGHT: Something in the water for the plastics industry

03 April 2018 12:22 Source:ICIS News

LONDON (ICIS)--Earlier this month,  journalism nonprofit Orb Media released a study on plastic bottles that added to the current landfill of negative press about consumer polymers and how the western world handles their disposal.

Using coloured dyes and spectroscopic analysis, the study identified traces of microplastic debris floating in the water packaged by a variety of household names including Dasani and Evian.

The traces extended beyond polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the usual suspect in consumer bottle contamination issues, with the largest culprit being polypropylene (PP) and other unwanted guests spanning the polymer chain (see graphic).

The study did not imply that the concentrations were harmful, and company responses were noncommittal, non-specifically concerned and slightly prickly, as if the researchers had been discourteous enough to point out something that had been broadly known but had gone un-quantified until now: that there are minute traces of plastic in bottled water and that no one is sure how to prevent that.

“As Orb Media’s own reporting has shown, microscopic plastic fibres appear to be ubiquitous, and therefore may be found at minute levels even in highly treated products. We stand by the safety of our products, and welcome continued study of plastics in our environment,” said Coca Cola, with other corporate statements echoing that general sentiment.

Source: Orb Media/ Fredonia State UniversityAt 259 samples, the study is not particularly robust, but consumer plastics producers would do well to keep in mind the impact of chlorine chicken on EU-US free trade discussions. A raft of abstract, indigestible issues were condensed into a single visceral image of a chicken suspended in a vat of corrosive chemical.

Similarly, while consumers may be concerned in the abstract about ocean waste or images of seabirds stuffed with plastic, the highest-impact issues are the ones closest to home, and the mental image of slivers of polymer floating in water and slipping down our throats is much more immediate.

Orb’s study is well timed, as it appears that consumer plastics regulation may be reaching a tipping point, prompted by public health concerns and the materials piling up in Europe and North America since China’s crackdown on imports of recycled waste.

It may be that this, like previous and indeed more recent news stories, paves the way for brand-owners, converters and PET producers to tweak manufacturing processes that will result in improved quality.

As it is, there is so much bad press about PET and other plastics, not all of it accurate, that it risks spiralling out of control. After all, there has been much good that has come out of the invention and subsequent use of plastics.

“You can try your very best to reduce migration but there will always be migration when you have natural influences, when you have light and heat etc, and it’s natural that there are always some problems involved. If it is really a problem for health, I have my doubts. There is so much in food that is much more worrying than this. It’s just that the plastics are very much in the press and marketing campaigns. We are at the peak in the discussion at the moment…,” a plastics packaging supplier said.

It is easier said than done, however.

Waste recycling has for nearly a decade been insulated from the need to properly get its house in order as a result of China demand for western waste product, which became a true force around the time that local authorities were facing steeper penalties for sending waste to landfill.

Chinese demand grew to absorb two thirds of UK waste plastics, insulating the country from ever having to fully reckon with the level of waste it produces, and now that material is piling up, with UK Recycling Association head Craig Curtis calling it “potentially the biggest problem the UK recycling industry has ever faced”.

The massed narratives of environmental damage, waste accumulation and personal health concerns have led policymakers to strengthen their rhetoric on punitive taxation for producers. In the briefest UK spring budget in over a decade, UK Chancellor Phillip Hammond still found time to moot potential taxes on single-use plastics.

The latest response from the UK government on tackling recycling with a proposed deposit return scheme has been broadly welcomed. In the background however, there is a sense of a lack of in-depth understanding.

“There is a heap of hysteria created recently. The government launched a hand grenade to see where it lands…There is a lack of understanding in every area. It would be more sensible to have an informed discussion and then identify what we are trying to achieve here: the cessation of littering,”  a beverage industry source.

The European Commission has also reportedly mooted a “plastics contribution”, as it reckons with the hole the UK departure from the bloc will leave in its budget.

It seems that some additional measures may cross the finish line in the coming years as Europe increases its focus on the circular economy.

Bottles have garnered the brunt of the headlines, giving the PET sheet sector some breathing space, but perhaps not for long.

“We supply customers with laminates and this includes PET laminates, so this could change in the future,” a sheet producer said.

In the case of PET, its image could be improved by industry collaboration; working together to come up with effective ways of disposing of the product at a global level.

“It’s the people who dispose of the PET bottles irresponsibly who create the problem... people will continue to dispose of them irresponsibly,” a PET producer said.

If the product is collected in the proper way, then the problem is relatively sorted, because the risk of contamination with other materials would be reduced.

While the microplastics scandal was big news in some countries, in others it hardly featured. Nevertheless, “news like this always creates some type of fear in people. I am not sure if it is justified,” a preforms manufacturer said.

By Caroline Murray and Tom Brown

Pie chart graphic source: Orb Media/Fredonia State University

By Caroline Murray