Recycling a single plastic bottle can conserve enough energy to light a 60W bulb for up to 6 hours. There are many plastic facts, some are good and some are bad but plastics are not always the bad guy.
1. Consumption of plastics has grown twenty-fold in 50 years. The UK processed just over 3 million tonnes of thermoplastics in 2009 of which just under 600,000 tonnes was accounted for by the injection moulding industry.
2. Today, more than 700 types of plastic are produced which fall into 18 main polymer families. Within Europe, polyethylene and polypropylene account for around 50% of demand with PVC the third largest at 11%. More than half of all the material processed by injection moulders in the UK is polypropylene.
3. In the UK the largest end uses for plastics are packaging (41%), automotive (14%) and household goods 10%). Plastic industry sales across all sectors – material and additive manufacture, material processors and machinery manufacture, amounts to approximately £17.5 billion (about 2.1% of GDP) and employs 220,000 people.
4. Without plastics, 400% more material by weight and 200% more material by volume would be needed to make packaging. This means that the weight of packaging would increase four-fold, production costs and energy consumption would double and waste volume would increase by 150%. Another plastic facts - the plastic carrier bag which is 70% thinner than it was when introduced 25 years ago. It would take 7 lorries to deliver the same number of paper bags as a single lorry can deliver plastic bags.
5. The automotive industry is another major user of plastics. Over the last 20 years, the use of plastics in cars has increased by 114%. It is estimated that without plastics your today's cars would be at least 200kgs heavier. Over the average 150,000kms lifespan of a car, this weight saving would contribute to a fuel saving of 750 litres. This equates to a reduction in oil consumption of approximately 12 million tonnes and CO2 of 30 million tonnes per annum in Western Europe.
6. There are environmental downsides. In the UK we use about 270,000 tonnes of plastic bottles in our homes every year, that’s about 15 million bottles every day. It takes about 450 years just for one plastic bottle to break down in the ground. Recycling a single plastic bottle can conserve enough energy to light a 60W bulb for up to 6 hours. Only 2.5% of plastic bottles are currently recycled in Europe but in the UK more than 20% of household plastic bottles are recycled saving approximately 162,000 tonnes of carbon. 11% of household waste is plastic, 40% of which is plastic bottles. However, up to 40% less fuel is used to transport drinks in plastic rather than glass bottles.
7. If all the plastic used in Europe each year were substituted with a mix of alternative materials then an additional 50 million tones of crude oil would be required annually. Across their life-cycle, plastics consume less and require less raw materials compared with other materials. Products packaged with plastics, from food and drink to consumer durables, last longer and are less likely to be damaged.
8. Recycled plastics can be used to replace traditional wood products, for example, decking and fencing. In these instances the plastic holds nails and screws better than wood, is virtually maintenance free and lasts for 50 years.
9. For the environmentalists who see plastics as an evil, it is worth pointing out that only 4% of the world’s oil reserves are used to make plastics. Furthermore, at the end of their useful life plastics can be recycled or used as an alternative fuel. Plastic products have a calorific value that is at least equal to coal but with lower CO2 emissions. Also, much of today’s renewable energy technologies, such as solar panels and wind turbines, would not be possible without the use of plastics.
Further reading: British Plastics Federation - sustainable manufacturing in plastics