The plastics greenwash

To protect our planet without hindering technological advancement or compromising the lives of future generations, it is critical we use materials which can meet our needs without depleting our natural resources or causing damage to our environment.

Since its invention six decades ago, plastic use has grown exponentially and resulted in over 8.3 billion metric tonnes of various plastics. According to National Geographic, 91% of all plastics produced in the world have not been recycled. The Resource Efficiency Collective states less than 3% of the plastics consumed in the UK are made of local recycled plastics and the vast majority of waste ends up being incinerated, landfilled or exported.

As reported by the Resource Efficiency Collective, in the region of eight million tons of plastic waste enters the seas every year – more than twice the annual consumption of plastics in the UK.

Despite this, plastics can be found in every corner of modern-day life, in our homes, clothes, transportation and packaging. It has long been hailed for its longevity, but in reality, it is causing damage to ecosystems and wildlife, spreading toxins that even enter the food chain.

It is clear that plastics do not form part of a natural environmental lifecycle.

Plastic in our built environments

During the last 25 years, plastic has become increasingly prevalent within the built environment. As an example, in buildings developed before the 1990s, copper plumbing fixtures would have been the status quo. Now nearly every new build home uses plastic pipes both in underfloor and plumbing applications.

This transition is down to the plastics industry focusing on the benefits while downplaying the environmental impact and greatly exaggerating its recyclability.  Multi-layer composite (MLC) tube, consisting of layers of plastic and aluminium is a prime example of commonly-used tube that cannot be recycled.

Made from crude oil and chemicals, plastic contains CMR carcinogenic, mutagenic and reprotoxic (CMR) substances. Plastics are created to fit a function with little consideration to the impact it could have on consumers or the planet once completing its purpose.

Commonly used plastic compounds such as polyvinylchloride (PVC), polyethylene (PE) or cross-linked polyethylene (PEX) all deteriorate over time making them less and less suitable for recycling or re-manufacturing into other usable items.

Despite industry bodies’ suggestions that plastic pipes are fully recyclable and have a circular, end of life economy, one important fact remains. Most plastics are still not being recycled.

Many plastics manufacturers pledge their commitments to developing a catalogue of 100% recyclable products where the raw materials can be used and re-used without the loss of quality or use of finite fossil fuels, however, forgive the pun but this remains a “pipe dream”. Put simply, the vast majority of plastic is currently not recycled.

The plastic compounds used for pipe are created with hydrophobic properties also known as PBT (persistent, bio-accumulative toxic) materials are particularly troublesome when it enters the environment. If given the right conditions, plastic chemicals can leach into water or substances it comes into contact with, which could prove harmful to humans or other organisms that may come into contact with the plastic.

Although some mitigations have been made by the plastics industry to reduce leaching, many contaminants remain unknown along with the effect of what the mixture of such chemicals could mean to life and the environment in the long term.

Research suggests that cutting plastic consumption by half while making the remainder from non-fossil fuels compounds will make it possible to cut global emissions from plastics from 1,984 Mt CO2e in 2015 to 790 Mt CO2e in 2050.

It is no small feat to reduce our current plastic consumption by half, but a key component of making this possible is to replace and substitute materials used across key manufacturing sectors such as packaging, construction, electronics and automotive which combined account for more than 60% of plastics emissions.

Thankfully there are many viable materials to use instead of virgin plastics, many of which already in mainstream use.

The copper solution

To create a future that isn’t reliant on finite resources, we need to look at materials which can offer far more for the environment and the people it serves, without limiting the progress of innovation.

Unlike alternatives, copper can be re-used and recycled infinitely, without losing any of its properties. It also has natural anti-bacterial and anti-microbial properties which supports the maintenance of healthy drinking water and is frequently used in hospitals because of its natural ability to protect the health of patients.

As far as plumbing is concerned, copper is the pro-plumber’s material of choice. It is an all-natural material that doesn’t leach toxic substances, and provides incredible thermal resilience, making it the only material able to withstand thermal shocking at 70°C. Thermal shocking at this temperature effectively kills waterborne bacteria such as legionella pneumophila.

As a material and an industry, copper is working hard to protect the environment in which it came from. According to the International Copper Association, about two thirds of the copper produced since 1900 is still in use today, with more than 30 per cent of demand met solely by recycled sources.

It is a material that supports social and economic growth, innovation and the environment where the supply chain isn’t linear. So called ‘urban mining’ where copper is extracted from used products is now becoming a growing part of the material’s lifecycle.

Born from nature, copper will last longer, provide great resilience and help support more sustainable living.