Getting to the truth about giving up plastics

As the war on plastics continues to rage, with new levies and surcharges proposed, and emotionally charged environmental counterarguments, the truth becomes increasing clouded and harder to discern. Managing Director of Sumitomo (SHI) Demag UK Nigel Flowers explores the bad press plastics has been getting since the airing of Blue Planet II and the reality of giving plastics up for good.

Plastic pollution is far from a new complaint. Yet, it’s the environmental issue of the moment and public enemy number one. It’s easy to feel virtuous about eschewing plastic altogether. Rather than weighing in further on this debate and suggesting new ways to staunch the flow of plastic waste into our oceans, perhaps we should reflect on the impact if plastic left our world altogether.

What’s undeniable is the impact on modern day living would be considerable and certainly not as comfortable. We’re not just talking convenience packaging. Mobile phones, or any electrical device for that matter, would be virtually eradicated or uneconomical to produce. As the third biggest user of plastics, after packaging and construction, without it innovation would stall.

Examining the medical field, plastic has revolutionised patient care, increasing safety and making procedures simpler and faster to perform. Notably, plastics have contributed to a reduction in medical costs, infectious disease and improved pain management for millions of people.

Medical items we take for granted, such as disposable syringes, intravenous blood bags and heart valves are made of plastic. Disposable devices are proven to significantly reduce the risk of cross infection among patients. Sterile plastic packaging and plastic medical disposables in particular contribute to keeping the rates of Staphylococcal infections low.

Modern day prosthetic devices use high tech polymers to improve mobility for some 45,000 people in England alone[i]. For those depending on prosthetic limbs, a number of components are now made from plastic to improve comfort and offer increased flexibility. Developments in 3D polymer printing technology will open the door to custom made joints and limbs.

There are approximately 11 million people in the UK with hearing loss, and by 2035, this is estimated to increase to 15.6 million people.[ii] Plastic remains a fundamental component in hearing devices and ear implants.

The UK is a nation of spectacle wearers, with over 70% of Britons now dependent on prescription glasses or contact lenses. In order to reduce the weight of glasses frames and lenses, plastic is now widely deployed.[iii] And for every disposable contact lens that’s manufactured, injection moulding creates a bespoke mould.

By 2030, most vehicles on the road will be electric. This phasing out of conventional petrol and diesel vehicles will lead to a greater reliance on plastic, due to its lightweighting properties.

Alternative materials continue to be developed, and although we could potentially reduce our dependence on plastics derived from fossil based resource, right now bioplastics represents around one percent of the annual plastics production.

In truth, making a real difference will require a joint effort, with industry stakeholders, manufacturers, suppliers and consumers being better informed and educated about the challenges, and having legislative and regulatory frameworks that actively promote sustainable development and supports innovation.