Looking at Greener Ways
Polythene is a technological wonder of the last century. It was accidentally invented in 1899 by German chemist Hans von Pechmann. He had no interest in the waxy substance produced by heating chemicals for a different experiment, and it wasn’t until 1933 that his feat was reproduced. After enlightened chemists at ICI recognised polythene’s potential, its production was refined and it became the revolutionary packaging material we know today.
But plastics have acquired a bad reputation. This is set to change now that sustainable polythene has become a reality, complete with the following benefits.
It Isn’t Made From Fossil Fuels
Conventional polythene is made from oil and natural gas, both of which are fossil fuels. These compounds were laid down hundreds of millions of years ago under conditions unique to the time, so when we’ve used them up they’re gone for good. And since humankind has managed to get through approximately half of known fossil fuel reserves in 125 years, the sooner we slow the pace the better.
Sustainable polythene is likely to be a tremendous asset in conserving these scarce resources. Just like its fossil fuel-derived cousin, bio-polythene is a polymer, but one based on alcohol from sugar beet, sugar cane and wheat. Despite its botanical origins, sustainable polythene has the durability and strength of the traditional kind.
It Won’t End Up in Landfill
The bane of 21st century Britain is the landfill site: we’re running out of space for these, and dumping our waste in them is neither cost effective nor sustainable. Worse yet, existing landfills are crammed with standard polythene, since a mere 24% of the five million tonnes of plastics used each year gets recycled.
This is a profligate and purblind way to treat a material made from a finite, non-renewable source, especially a material that isn’t biodegradable.
However, polythene is reusable and recyclable, and its escalating cost is likely to encourage recycling in the future. Sustainable polythene is no different, since it can be included in the same recycling chain as the plastics made from fossil fuels. It therefore has the potential to be part of a closed loop process: a good thing, given the current imperative for businesses to consider their social responsibility.
Its Use Reduces Distribution Costs
One enormous benefit of polythene – from whichever source – is its strength and light weight as a packing material. Its use in distribution significantly reduces fuel costs over traditional ‘green’ alternatives like cardboard and paper. Furthermore, polythene takes up less space on a pallet, enabling you to pack more products into each shipment: do all this with sustainable polythene, and your green credentials will be impeccable.
Its Production Involves Carbon Capture
Climate change deniers aside, we’re all very well aware of the problematic consequences of the high concentrations of carbon dioxide in today’s atmosphere. This, of course, is the result of burning fossil fuels. Bio-polythene is an especially effective solution to these twin problems, because it addresses both of them: no fossil fuels need be expended in its production, and the process of growing the crops for the raw materials actually captures atmospheric carbon.
Approximately 2 kg of carbon dioxide will be removed from the atmosphere for each kg of sustainable polythene manufactured, and if closed loop recycling is achieved, very little of it will subsequently be re-emitted. Very rarely can a packaging material be said to constitute a solution rather than a problem, but green polythene seems to have managed this.
It’s Greener than the Alternatives
With increasing levels of consumer interest in sustainability, green polythene’s time has surely come. One of the major concerns for shoppers is the environmental cost of plastic bags, and yet so-called ‘bags for life’ are scarcely better alternatives. To recoup the energy expended in the manufacture of your average reusable shopping bag, you’d need to use it some 130 times.
If the aforementioned bag is made of cotton, its ecological impact is probably even worse, as cotton production is renowned for being environmentally destructive. One excellent solution would be to produce reusable bags made from sustainable polythene. Then shoppers could benefit from this innovative material in a non-disposable form.
Polythene is a versatile material, but it’s also one with an image problem: most of us think of discarded polythene festering in landfill sites for millennia. And yet many of our so-called ‘green alternatives’ just aren’t up to the job. So it looks like sustainable polythene may be the answer we’ve been hoping for.
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