It’s not plastic that’s destroying the planet, it’s how we use it

Steve Millward, General Manager at bakery equipment company Bakers Basco, welcomes the UK Government’s £20m fund aimed at changing how we use and abuse plastic.

Editor’s note: Bakers Basco was set up by five of the UK’s leading plant bakers in 2006 to buy, manage and police the use of a standard basket for the delivery of bread to retailers and wholesalers. The company currently manages a pool of approximately four million Omega Baskets, which are used by bakers including Allied Bakeries, Fine Lady Bakeries, Frank Roberts & Sons, Hovis and Warburtons to deliver bread to their customers. Find out more at www.bakersbasco.co.uk.

 

By Steve Millward

Sam Gyimah, Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation in the UK Government, recently announced a new £20 million Plastics Research and Innovation Fund (PRIF) aimed at radically changing how we make and use plastic products.

Now, a lot of politicians, pundits and business people have jumped on the anti-plastic bandwagon in the last couple of years, and plastic has become ‘Public Enemy Number One’, being blamed for all the ills besetting the UK and the wider world.

TV news shows footage of mountains of plastic waste or giant islands of plastic tubs, bottles and coffee cups trapped forever in the South Pacific currents, a kind of Sargasso Sea of garbage.

“RTP may not be sexy,

but it works

– it saves time,

it saves transport costs,

it saves money and it could

just help us save the planet.”

 

The problem, though, isn’t plastic itself – it’s how we use it. So it’s great that the UK Government has recognised that some kind of outright ban on plastic isn’t the solution – and when he was announcing the new fund, Sam Gyimah made that clear.

Instead, the fund will be supporting new technologies and new plastics that don’t harm the environment as much and – and this is for our industry the really crucial point – on “moving from our current model of make, use and dispose to a new model where you use, you reuse and you recycle.”

Finally, we’re getting some real recognition that the right kind of plastic products, used in the right way, can contribute in a major way to solving the problem, while helping companies cut costs and improve margins through their use in the ‘circular economy’, where things are built to last and can easily be recycled and the raw materials reused when they reach the end of their life.

It’s not (all) about getting consumers to start getting their morning coffee in reusable cups, not disposable ones (although that’s important): it’s got to be about how we use plastic throughout our society, including in the logistics and supply chain.

The new PRIF fund will support Britain’s move towards “more circular economic and sustainable approaches to plastics”, the Government says. Those of us already working in the ‘circular economy’ need to make sure our voices are heard as well.

We need to make sure the agenda for the new fund includes exploring how reusable products can become much more widely accepted as part of the logistics chain, in the form of heavy-duty, long-lasting reusable crates, pallets and baskets – known in the industry as Reusable Transit Packaging (RTP). Sure, cardboard is recyclable, too – but do you really think a cardboard box will last for eight years of heavy use?

Bakers Basco

This is plastic as a solution, not as a problem

We aren’t the only supplier of RTP to the food and drink industry. There are probably tens of millions of baskets, crates and pallets made out of heavy-duty plastic and designed to last for years, shuttling backwards and forwards from food manufacturer to depot to retailer, saving a fortune in disposable packaging and never going into landfill.

This is plastic as a solution, not as a problem – the products are sturdy, designed for a specific purpose, and they work within a very carefully designed and managed closed-loop system.

Arguably, this closed-loop system is the most important element of any Reusable Transit Packaging scheme. There must be processes in place for the packaging equipment to be:

  • Designed to deliver optimum functionality for the purpose;
  • Delivered to clients at the right time and in the right quantity and collected when necessary;
  • Cleaned regularly;
  • Repaired when needed;
  • Checked for wear and tear and assessed for life-span remaining;
  • Collected when they have reached the end of their useful lives and sent for recycling.

That means that everyone involved – manufacturers, distributors and retailers – must buy-in to the principles of the scheme and accept they have a part to play in ensuring everything runs smoothly.

RTP may not be sexy, but it works – it saves time, it saves transport costs, it saves money and it could just help us save the planet.