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23 June 2022

How to reduce the environmental impacr of plastics

How to reduce the environmental impact of plastics: possible areas for action

Plastic is an extremely veratile, hard-wearing and durable material that is used in many sectors, both in industry and the home, for several years now has become part of our daily lives. The environmental impact of plastic is mainly related to its disposal: as it is not biodegradable, it can be harmful if thrown away and dispersed in large quantities in the environment.

Improper disposal, and therefore excessive plastic accumulation, can jeopardise the balance of the ecosystem, polluting seas, rivers and lakes, but also natural areas, parks and urban areas. To reduce the environmental impact of plastic and contain waste and CO2 emission, it is advisable to choose products made from recycled plastics, which have a significantly lower impact than those from virgin raw materials, and to commit to correct and conscious separate collection.

But what can be done, specifically, to reduce the environmental impact of plastics and avoid waste? Let's find out together!

Environmental impact of plastics: how to reduce emissions and waste

To realistically think of a world without plastics today is virtually impossible. The invention of plastics represented a real revolution, radically changing our lifestyles and everyday objects. Over the years, however, the logic of disposability and a lack of attention to recycling plastic products have put a strain on the environment and ecosystems, particularly marine ecosystems. The path towards greater environmental sustainability is not only a metter for those in the industry but requires the commitment of everyone, even through simple measures or actions to be introduced in daily life, in the workplace or at home. So what can be done to reduce the environmental impact of plastic?

  1. choose products made from recycled and environmentally sustainable plastic: the environmental impact of plastic is linked to improper disposal, but also to the production of virgin plastic (using chemicals derived from oil, coal and natural gas), which implies significant CO2 emissions. To reduce the impact on the environment, it is possible to take action by choosing packaging and products made from recycled plastic, which are more sustainable and can in turn be recycled to make new products;
  2. strive for proper end-of-life management more conscious separate collection to reduce the production of new plastics and save natural resources and raw materials. Thanks to recycling, plastic waste can be turned into valuable resources: after being collected, sent for  recycling and processed in special plants, plastics are transformed into new products or sent for energy recovery through waste-to-energy plants;
  3. respect the environment around us by not throwing plastic packaging and products, and in general any type of waste, directly into the environment. It is essential to make an effort to dispose of waste correctly, even when travelling, at the beach, in the mountains or in any natural environment, by using the appropriate waste bins (where available) or by collecting and separating waste for disposal at a later date in special ecological islands or at the nearest disposal points;
  4. choose products made from renewable energy sources: production should be as sustainable as possible, for example by using solar energy, to minimise waste and emissions. Choosing to source locally, avoiding goods transported by air, can also be a good way to reduce the environmental impact of products during their entire life cycle.

Which plastics are recyclable?

The generic term "plastic" does not refer to a single material, but to a wide assortment of plastics, synthetic or semi-synthetic, used for a variety of applications. Each type of plastic is distinguished by its specific composition, characteristics and areas of use. Correct sorting and separation of the different plastics is therefore essential to ensure that effective recycling can be achieved. Plastic packaging is considered recyclable if it is designed to have a second life and if collection and recycling processes prove feasible and efficient. The different types of recyclable plastics are easily recognisable by a specific recycling logo, usually a triangle with a number from 1 to 7 inside it. The most common recyclable plastic polymers in the world of packaging include:

  • PET or polyethylene terephthalate, a transparent and resistant thermoplastic resin belonging to the polyester family, widely used for the production of bottles, tubs and blisters, but also films, containers and various types of packaging;
  • high-density polyethylene (HDPE), one of the most common plastics, useful for the production of detergent or food bottles and plastic caps;
  • PVC or polyvinyl cloride, a thermoplastic widely used in the construction industry (for the production of pipes or window frames) and in the packaging industry for the production of packaging films;
  • low-density polyethylene (LDPE), a thermoplastic belonging to the polyethylene family (i.e. polymers derived from the polymerisation of ethylene). Due to its specific characteristics, such as extreme lightness, ductility and flexibility, it is mainly used in the production of films, bags and pouches that can be used in various sector;
  • polypropylene (PP), a thermoplastic material used for many everyday objects, such as household items and toys, but also for different types of packaging such as cans, bottles and automatic packaging film;
  • polystyrene (PS), used for making disposable tableware or packaging. Expanded polystyrene, in particular, is used for packaging and for insulating or soundproofing artefacts in the construction industry;

All other types of plastics and their combinations (e.g. packaging made of different types of plastics) do not have a specific code and are generally grouped under code 7. Due to their heterogenity and the variety of applications for which they are used, these types of packaging are not sent directly for recycling, but remain in the residual fraction and therefore sent for energy recovery. Polymers used to produce packaging that do not have a specific recycling code include, for example, polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) and polycarbonate (PC).

Recycled plastic: from waste to new resource

If we were able to correctly dispose and recycle all the plastic produced, transforming it into new raw material and putting it back into production cycle, the environmental impact would be greatly reduced, not only in terms of resource and energy consumption, but also in terms of pollution due to the dispersion of plastics and microplastics into the environment. In the world, the percentage of plastic waste sent for recycling is still quite low, but, in recent years, in Italy, there have been notable signs of improvement and the amount of plastic packaging recycled has grown progressively in recent years.

According to data provided by Corepla (the National Consortium for the Collection Recycling and Recovery of Plastic Packaging) in its Annual Sustainability Report, in 2020, 1,913,914 tonnes of plastic packaging (belonging to Corepla) was consumed and 1,820,270 tonnes, i.e. 95% was recovered. Of this, 47 % of plastic packaging was sento fo recycling and 48% for energy recovery. Increased recycling of plastic packaging waste has therefore resulted in significant savings on the use of virgin raw material (with 458,000 tonnes saved in 2020, compared to 436,000 in 2018) and energy (9472 Gigawatt-hours saved in 2020).

The increased availability of recycled raw material also led to a considerable reduction in CO2 emissions: again accordin to Corepla, around 900,000 tonnes of CO2eq were avoided in 2020. In addition, benefits from the point of view of energy recovery and electrical and thermal energy actually produced (91 GWh and 183 Gwh, respectively, in 2020), should also be considered.

Plastisac's commitment to greater environmental sustainability

Plastisac has always worked to improve the sustainability of its business processes and is committed to the development of polyethylene products with a low environmental impact, also collaborating with customers and suppliers to promote virtuous supply chains in waste management and efficient plastic waste collection and recycling systems.

In addition to guaranteeing the quality and traceability of each packaging product made, it was one of the first companies in the sector to commit to reducing the Carbon Footprint (i.e. the CO2 emissions generated during the entire life cycle of a product) of plastic bags used for waste collection, and to obtain the Systematic Approach certification to validate its management system.

Thanks to numerous initiatives aimed at greater sustainability and careful control of each stage of production process, in ten years, starting in 2011, Plastisac has reduced CO2 production by 500 tonnes (corresponding to around 2000 trees planted each year) and is now able to offer bags made entirely of recycled plastic, which have a lower impact than bags mede from virgin raw material.

The bags made by Plastisac from post-consumer recycled plastic are 100% environmentally friendly, have technical properties very similar to those of bags made from virgin raw material, and make it possible to significantly reduce CO2 emissions, which in the life cycle of plastics are mainly related to the sourcing and processing of raw materials and end-of-life. By 2022, this will result in a CO2 reduction of 50% (raw materials) for each recycled bag produced.

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