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Fair COP? Is Plastic Recycling Really a “Red Herring”?

In the lead up to COP26, Prime Minister Boris Johnson held a question-and-answer session with a group of schoolchildren at No 10 Downing Street.

One of the questions he was asked was about the importance of recycling plastics to help meet the global ambition to reduce landfill and lower carbon emissions.

“Recycling isn’t the answer, I’ve got to be honest with you,” Johnson told the assembled children. “It doesn’t begin to address the problem. You can only recycle plastic a couple of times, really. What you’ve got to do is stop the production of plastic. Stop the first use of plastic. The recycling thing is a red herring. We’ve all got to cut down on our use of plastic.”

For a company like ENL Group, that specialises in the manufacture and use of high-quality plastic components, this is a difficult and uncompromising message. It is also one that does not seem to align fully with wider government policy. DEFRA, the department responsible, still has a 25-year strategy that has the recycling of plastics as a key element.

Recycling in the UK

The PMs fundamental point was that recycling alone should not be seen as a silver bullet that can solve the challenge of plastic waste. Does he have a point?

Well, it is certainly true that in UK levels of plastic recycling are not as high as any of us would like to see.

For instance, figures from DEFRA indicate that that the UK reuses or recycles only 46% of the plastic packaging it produces. The reasons for this are complicated. Undoubtedly, there is confusion with some consumers about what can, and cannot be recycled. There is also huge variation across local authority areas which adds to the confusion and leads to lower rates in many areas.

However, just because recycling does not work as well as we would like, that does not mean we should stop trying to do it better. We need to be focused on driving up the level of plastic recycling rather than simply dismissing it as an option. Packaging information needs to be made clearer, and what you are able to recycle should not depend on the postcode that you live in. The challenges of reducing waste and landfill is too great to have such variability across the system.

Plastics in the Fight Against Climate Change

There is also a debate that needs to take place about the positive role that plastics can play in the fight against climate change. This is forgotten all too often.

Food packaging is a very good example of this. Often the focus is on the packaging itself, rather than the critical role it plays in reducing food waste. When it comes to cutting carbon emissions this is a very big deal indeed.

Research by the United Nations has calculated that if food waste was a country, it would be the third-highest emitter of greenhouse gases after the US and China. An astonishing 30% of the food we produce is wasted – about 1.8 billion tonnes of it a year. If, as a planet, we stopped wasting food altogether, we’d eliminate 8% of our total emissions.

Of course, the use of plastics is not the only solution to reducing food waste, but we know that the use of plastics to pack, transport, and store food is a critical part of the picture. Without plastics, food waste would substantially increase, making it harder for the planet to achieve the net zero future that we all want to see.

Similarly, in ENL’s own work – for instance in automotive or aviation – plastics are being used to reduce carbon emissions. As we move towards electrification for transport, then there is a growing need to reduce the weight of vehicles. Substituting parts made from metal with lighter, stronger, high-quality plastic moulded alternatives is a key part of that.

A Balanced Debate

This does not mean that as an industry, and as a country, we do not need to do more. But the reality is, that any ambition to stop the use of plastics is destined to fail. Plastics are an absolutely central part of modern life. As we saw during the recent COVID pandemic, plastic was essential for producing masks, testing kits, and delivering vaccinations. Quite simply, in many circumstances, plastics save lives.

Any balanced debate needs to recognise and acknowledge the positive role that plastics can play in keeping people safe and protecting our environment, as well as highlighting areas where we need to do more.  

However, there is no benefit to painting an overly simplified picture where plastics are simply “bad”. It might win a few headlines, but in the important fight to tackle climate change it does little to develop new approaches and solutions.

What ENL is Doing

At ENL we take our responsibilities as a company seriously when it comes to sustainability. Earlier this year, we wrote about the work of our ‘Environmental Champion’, Zofia in driving changes to the way we work to deliver products in a more sustainable way. As a company, we now recycle the packaging that materials arrive in, as well as oils, pallets, cardboard, and metals.

With environmental challenges at the top of the political agenda, we recognise that the plastics industry will continue to be in the spotlight. We also know that a world without plastics is neither realistic nor desirable. We will do all that we can to make sure that we continue to deliver for our customers in a way that meets their needs whilst causing as little damage as possible to the planet.

About ENL Group

ENL Group is based in Portsmouth, UK, and Veľké Kostoľany, Slovakia. Established in 1958, we have been servicing UK-based and European companies for decades. Working with a secure supply chain, ENL provides quality components for quality-driven customers – with full certification for all of our products and quality checking at every stage.

Operating 24/7, we design, manufacture, and deliver critical components for our customers across the UK and Europe.

Contact Us for more information about ENL and how we can help your business.