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Myths and legends of our time – plastics recycling

What goes round has an amazing habit of coming round again. Under the heading of Myth 2, the Daily Mail of 3 March carried an article in which Valfrid Paulsson, the former Director General of Sweden’s Environmental Protection Agency, stated that over emphasis on recycling was ill judged and that incineration of combustible packaging waste was a considerably better option.

To quote Valfrid, “a booming recycling market by 2010 was a dream 40 years ago… and is still just a dream”.

There is an old adage that if you give a million monkeys a million typewriters, one of them will produce the Works of Shakespeare. By the same yardstick, we might one day discover a sensible route to the recovery of lightweight complex packaging materials. Of course, anything can be recycled with enough effort but the big test comes with the question is it commercially, economically and environmentally beneficial?

Much modern packaging is made with great skill and ingenuity to employ the very minimum of material.

This process is often very complex, involving more than one base material, together with glues, printing, barrier and sealing layers and so on.

Each element of the packaging material performs a specific, often crucial, function in the provision of a safe, secure and protective way of containing a product.

Separating these layers is not impossible, but is it really sensible?

Then comes the old problem, which many people seem to avoid discussing in the relentless push towards advocating recycled materials, namely the issue of direct contact with foodstuffs.

EC90/128 and its six subsequent amendments sets out the situation with regard to global migration from packaging material into foodstuffs.

Certainly recycled material can be incorporated into such packaging but, in reality, what manufacturer is going to risk his reputation and his future by incorporating scrap, no matter how well controlled and documented, into such sensitive packaging material. How can batch-to-batch variation be eliminated? How can even the smallest quantities of rogue, even noxious, material be avoided? Not surprisingly, most plastics packaging businesses prefer to work from virgin material and sleep soundly at night!

Given this scenario and the fact that some 65% of plastics usage is in packaging and some 60% of that is film, the only logical answer to optimum recovery for the benefit of the environment is incineration.

How gratifying to see that the Swedes, respected for their environmental rigour, have now decided that this is in fact the best solution for domestic waste. When will the people of this small island come to the same conclusion? Now that’s a burning question!