A garbage dump in the Pacific, new bans from the EU, huge problems with recycling: Plastic is heavily under criticism. The discussion about the omnipresent material has long since reached the promotional products industry, including the search for alternative, less harmful raw materials. The one thing that is often forgotten along the line: It is the disposal that is the problem not the actual material itself.
If there is a material that epitomises human progress the most aptly since the mid-20th Century, it has to be plastic. The first synthetic materials were indeed introduced decades before – including Bakelite, celluloid, shellac or rubber. However, it wasn’t until the beginning of the 1950s that synthetic polymers experienced their breakthrough – and thus revolutionised the worlds of science, industry, engineering and product design. Countless products could be manufactured fast and above all favourably-priced all of a sudden and thus became affordable for a much wider population group than before. In the consumer goods sector, plastic enabled a higher standard of life, in the field of science it pushed the progress forward, in the world of medicine it helped save lives.
The scientists of the University of California calculated that the global industry has injection moulded, deep drawn, spun, extruded around 8.3 billion tons of plastic since the 1950s. And if one occupies oneself with the topic more closely, the high-tech solutions of the modern plastic industry – what the laymen tersely generalise as being “plastic” – certainly do have something fascinating about them. However the global output of plastic is not growing at a gradual level, it is positively exploding. Whereas, according to Plastics Europe, the European Association of Plastic Producers, the global yearly production was 1.5 mil. tons at the beginning of the 1950s, in the year 2017 it rose up to 348 mil. Furthermore, as the previously mentioned Californian survey calculated, 44% of all of the plastic items ever manufactured were produced after the year 2000. The image of the once “wonder material” has done a 180 degree turn – what used to symbolise progress and prosperity has in many places become a symbol for the destruction of the world in the public eye. According to Plastics Europe, plastic waste to the volume of around 27.1 mil. tons arises in Europe alone every year. On hearing the word “plastic” many people no longer think about great and at the same time affordable design, about self-cleaning surfaces or packaging solutions that keep food fresh for weeks or which keep medical accessories sterile, but instead about dolphins that die a wretched death caught in stray trawl nets, about turtles swimming through forests of plastic bags or water birds and other marine creatures that have eaten plastic parts until they die. Plastic has an image problem and the world has a plastic problem.
Sense and nonsense
One estimates that in the meantime over 5.25 trillion plastic parts are floating around in the oceans. A polystyrene box takes about 50 years to decompose in water, a plastic bottle around 450 years – and it is not even proven that the waste residues disappear ever. Not to mention the hardly estimable amount of microplastic that gets into the environment and ultimately into the sea through for instance the abrasion of tyres or from cosmetic products. What people frequently forget amid all the shocking figures and images: All of the plastic in the ground, in the rivers and in the oceans once fulfilled a function: Plastic bags unite favourably-priced production with a high load capacity and at the same time extremely thin walls, PET bottles are lightweight and hygienic, Tetra Pak protects what’s good and without the film around the cucumbers that is so frequently criticised by the consumers, 30% of the vegetables would perish during the transport, which would have a considerably negative impact on the life cycle assessment. Not to mention the energy balance that plastic boasts: “A reusable mug made of our material wins hands down against a bamboo melamine mug, even more since compounds like melamine are not recyclable,” reported Stephan Koziol, CEO of koziol. “What’s more, our mugs can be recycled at the end of their service life.”
“In terms of resource efficiency and the CO2 footprint, in many cases plastic products have a better track record compared to other materials,” according to a statement made by Plastics Europe. “This also and especially applies for the currently frequently criticised plastic packaging, which among others protects foodstuffs from perishing. According to a GVM survey carried out in the year 2015, plastic packaging has become good 25% lighter on average since 1991 without its function being compromised. As such almost one million tons of fewer plastic was used for packaging alone in the year 2013.” However, such savings and optimisations don’t suffice by half to get the waste problem under control. That is why the politicians, environmental organisations and scientists have been demanding stricter regulations for many years, which have in several cases actually been approved recently. For example India, one of the countries with the highest pro-capita consumption of plastic worldwide, is banning all disposable products made of plastic including bottles by 2022. The plastic ban of the European Commission that was passed in October 2018 doesn’t go quite that far: From 2021 onwards plates and cutlery, cotton buds, straws, drink stirrers and further disposable products will be banned in the EU. Furthermore from 2030 onwards all plastic packaging on the EU market will have to be recyclable.
Whilst some of the environmental associations are criticising the ban as being a rather inconsistent “feel-good compromise”, many of the plastic producers and associations strongly object to such legal interventions. “In our opinion banning plastic products is not expedient because it doesn’t create any real understanding for sustainable consumption and environmentally-conscious behaviour,” commented Dr. Rüdiger Baunemann, Managing Director of Plastics- Europe Germany. “At the worst they can even lead to people opting for other possibly even more eco-unfriendly materials instead.“ According to Baunemann, the aim should instead be to establish European-wide sustainable collecting and recycling solutions for plastic waste and create awareness for a sparing use of resources of all kinds among the consumer. Because it is not the material that is the problem, but instead the incorrect handling of plastic waste as well as the poor waste management in many parts of the world.”
The recycling problem
It is true: Far too little recycling occurs even in those places where established take-back and processing systems exist – such as in Germany: Of the 5.2 million tons of end user waste that accumulated in Germany in 2017, according to Conversio only 0.81 million tons was fed back into the plastic production cycle as a recycled material for reprocessing. Although the new German packaging law that has been in force since the beginning of 2019 foresees that 58.5% of the plastic packaging is to be recycled from this year onwards. However, the plastic from the sorting plants doesn’t find its way back into local cycles completely, but is instead exported – indeed mostly to those regions that are accused of showing lacking commitment regarding plastic waste. According to the magazine, Der Spiegel, Germany alone exported 84,000 tons of plastic waste to Malaysia in the first quarter of the 2018. The frequently expressed reproach that primarily Asia is responsible for the rubbish in the world’s oceans is thus often an oversimplified conclusion – the plastic parts that find their way into the Pacific from Jangtse, Mekong or Ganges often originate from Europe.
It is often beyond the control of the consumers to decisively change the weak points of the recycling systems. However, every individual person can make a contribution – and so can each individual company. Regarding the approach to packaging, urgent action is required within the promotional products industry too. “With a view to the huge amount of different products that are in circulation in our industry there are ample opportunities to eliminate unnecessary or redundant outer packaging, poly-bags, etc.,” explained Charlene Webb, Account Director at Prominate UK. “In this connection, we work closely together with our suppliers and make recommendations to customers on every given occasion, for example, to avoid plastic packaging and swap them for brown paper, if possible.” In this connection, Evan Lewis, CEO of ecopromo, a specialist for sustainable promotional products, also made reference to the deposit system for reusable and disposable bottles made of plastic that is in place in some of the EU countries: “It lends packaging that was previously thrown away thoughtlessly a value that underlines its significance as a raw material.”
What does “organic” mean?
It would be all the better if the ecological disadvantages of plastic – such as the synthesis from crude oil – could be further minimised. In the scope of the oil mining necessary for production of plastic millions of tons of CO2 are set free into the atmosphere every year. So-called “organic plastic” on the other hand is considered to be virtually climate-neutral. This is strictly speaking a fuzzy collective term, on the one hand these are polymers gained from regrowing raw materials, on the other hand they are all bio-degradable and compostable plastics. In the case of products based on corn starch or cellulose, the raw material is gained from regrowing plant-based resources. PLA (polylactic acid) is produced by the fermentation of sugar and starch with the aid of lactic acids and the polymerisation of lactic acid. Plastic on the basis of starch, cellulose or PLA is in the meantime widespread within the industry – there is hardly a writing instrument, drinkware or other plastic producer, who doesn’t offer a corresponding series. The writing instrument producer Ritter-Pen for instance offers among others writing instruments made of cellulose acetate under its brand “Ritter Cares”, which was developed in collaboration with the Fraunhofer Institute. “Before the series went into production we had a whole row of tests carried out in the course of which the material was optimised for our purposes. It terms of processing it has the same properties as conventional plastic. Whereby, only the transparent version of the organic plastic we use can be easily individually dyed. Our material doesn’t have problems that other organic plastics bring with them – PLA for instance is extremely heat-sensitive,” explained Jürgen Riedel, Ritter-Pen. “If the recycling throughput is right, organic plastic is a super material.”
Unfortunately, that is mostly not the case. During the sorting process it is often not possible to reliably differentiate between biodegradable and non-biogradable plastic so that the organic plastic is burned in the totally conventional way in most cases. And anyone, who believes he can simply dispose of his organic plastic waste after use on the home compost heap, is mistaken: Most organic plastics are geared towards durability, otherwise they would be far too sensitive to environmental influences and thus not suitable in terms of quality for most intended purposes. Normally, defined industrial conditions are necessary for their decomposition. Furthermore, when organic plastic decomposes it brings no benefit to the environment. Finally, it is also controversial as to how strong an effect the excessive cultivation of field crops for the production of organic plastic would have on the climate and ecosystem
“The best waste is that which can be avoided”
To say “Plastic has to go” would be absurd – but it would be equally absurd to carry on as before. We produce incredible amounts of plastic – half of all of the plastic items produced have been manufactured within the last 19 years. Taking into account today’s population growth rate this cannot continue. The promotional products industry itself evolved at a point in time when plastic and electronics didn’t exist yet and when there weren’t seven billion people on this planet. If the logic of the industry continues to be: “As much as possible and everything that is possible,” we are going to end up having massive problems. A few years ago I considered issuing information more important than bans, but the problems have escalated so fast that certain regulations are simply necessary. The current plastic ban is actually pretty moderate, because it is only limited down to small product groups. One has to start somewhere and that means in this case with the least needed products. Regulations often give the industry a decisive push in the right direction.
The use of plastic should be limited to areas where the material is without an alternative or where it offers true added value. Beyond this the consumption of plastic should be drastically reduced. The best waste is that which can be avoided – for example if the packaging is done away with, one doesn’t even have to recycle it. Some of our customers want to have their goods delivered in a poly-bag. We ask them if that is really necessary, most of the time with a successful outcome. At the same time, it is necessary to look for alternative materials where possible – taking the overall life cycle into account of course: Here, plastic sometimes scores better than other, so-called “green” materials and in this respect a lot of cheating and misconception is occurring on the market. So, I don’t plead that “Plastic has to go”, but we do have to rethink the way we handle the material.
“The discussions are being held in a populist way”
Plastic plays a very significant role within our industry, because thanks to its ductility it offers a wide spectrum of opportunities – not least for custom-made designs. The current ban is a case of symbolic politics, the debate is being held in an exceptionally political-populist way. The diversity of plastics and their significance for mankind – i.e. in the field of medicine – are being totally ignored. Instead one comes to the conclusion from films about plastic in the oceans that there is more plastic there than fish and bans on balloon holders, straws, disposable cutlery, etc. are being passed at short notice.
But what does actually end up in which oceans and rivers? The majority of the marine plastic waste is washed into the oceans from the Asiatic and African rivers. Asia produces over half of the worldwide plastic. Furthermore, the largest causer of plastic waste in the sea is the abrasion of rubber tyres. There are patents for abrasion-free tyres, but nobody produces them – it is definitely worth asking the reasons why. The micro-particles from the cosmetics industry are also a huge problem. Instead plastic carrier bags are being denounced – this is misleading. In those cases where it is practical, I am unconditionally in favour of alternatives to disposable products. The way a lot of people handle resources is alarming, everyone should ask himself how he can avoid waste and how he can implement raw materials more sparingly. This begins small-scale at home and ends – in terms of our industry – by questioning cheap imports and disposable items. Beyond this, I fear however that the promotional products industry can do very little to avoid “piles of plastic rubbish”. The plastic producers in Europe already act in an exemplary way, the businesses that are exploiting the system have to be scrutinised carefully. All of the plastic factories I have visited over the last 40 years, have fed the sprues, throughput, etc. immediately back into the running process via mills as a matter of course. One would have to be pretty dumb to waste such resources. The material recovery of plastic waste in many European states is practically exploited to the full. Plastic is fed back into the production cycle in manifold ways in the form of reclaimed plastic and ground material that is melted down. It is not possible to increase the recycling quota short-term and would only lead to cheating.
Organic plastic destroys resources in the agricultural sector and it offers no advantages compared to reclaimed materials. There was already a trend towards alternative materials in the 1980s, back then as today products made of wood, cork, glass or other supposedly more eco-friendly raw materials were offered, which however were not able to match the performance in terms of an expedient ecological assessment. In some cases, the current debate completely ignores the life cycle assessment theme – the ecological assessment of plastic is namely better than that of many other materials.
“The debate is long overdue”
The ongoing plastic waste debate is long overdue. Plastic waste and the use of singleuse plastic, often simply for convenience, has got out of control. We do not need a straw or plastic bag offered with every purchase and producers need to consider the wastefulness of their products and packaging. Against this background the ban on certain disposable products recently passed by the European Commission is an important step. Regulations alone don’t achieve the aim, but they can accelerate the developments – especially when the consumer is on the side of the lawmaker and generates a demand for alternative products so that the manufacturers have to react. A lot is happening in this direction at the moment. The image of plastic is in the meantime that tarnished that some of our customers no longer want to buy anything made of plastic, even if it’s recycled plastic. This is not very expedient – if no recycled plastic is bought any more, the piles of rubbish would grow even further – and it is unrealistic, because, like in all industries, plastic has a part to play in the promotions sector. However, our reliance on plastic must be reduced. There are still too many items produced in our industry that do not serve a purpose. The promotional merchandise industry must stop selling “novelty” and single-use plastic items from plastics of poor quality or which have no practical use.
We must encourage clients to buy recycled, biodegradable or sustainable items that have a long life-span. Good quality products that last a long time also carry the client’s marketing message longer. If items can be made from natural materials, the alternative must become the standard. There are now lots of plastic alternatives made from natural materials that can be used in the production of most injection-moulded products. This is the first and really important starting point. Plant-based alternatives are much better for the environment – they involve no exhaustible raw materials and can be disposed of more responsibly, even if they end up in landfills. The industry should start with the easy win for the client. There are good eco-friendly alternatives in many product categories. Resellers should encourage their clients to swap virgin plastic pens for recycled pens, non-woven plastic bags for ethically sourced cotton bags. Do not try and re-invent every item in the range to make it eco-friendly. The alternatives are already available. This makes a quick and easy difference and gets corporate clients started on their journey to a better merchandise offering.
“We don’t have a plastic problem, it is actually a disposal problem”
It is not the material that is the source of evil, but indeed its handling. Anyone, who wants to ban plastic, so that less waste is produced, could just as easily ban steel so that no more barbed wire is produced. Each plastic product initially has a function and plastic fulfils many functions better than all other Materials. This applies for packaging and other disposable products, which are only brought into circulation at such an inflationary manner, because they are very favourably-priced, useful, practical and because they are the simplest solution. Materials such as glass or ceramic break down at a similarly slow rate as plastic – but not such a high amount of them are swimming around in the seas. So, we don’t have a plastic problem, it is actually a disposal problem. People have also learned to handle glass or ceramics more carefully because of the higher price.
The ban on disposable items made of plastic that was recently passed makes sense, but I don’t think it will have much of an impact – it wasn’t really based on facts, but more on opinions, the show and political opportunism. Nevertheless, we can’t do much about the current mood, except for carrying out explanatory work and positioning ourselves strongly against a throw-away mentality in this connection. We want our items to be used and enjoyed by people for decades. That is why we are not only not affected by the ban – we will even profit from it, if the demand for reusable solutions made from plastic increases. We produce the latter with good reason from high-quality plastic, because it is energy-efficient, lightweight, robust, hygienic, perfectly ductile and offers excellent customising possibilities – in short: It is a dream material. We don’t sell plastic products, but instead solutions for problems that can be the most expediently realised using plastic – including the ecological aspects. We have been manufacturing exclusively in Germany since 1927 and implement thermoplastic high-quality plastics that are robust, certified, free from plasticisers and which are 100% recyclable. All of the technologies implemented for the production comply with the latest, energy-efficient standards, we consistently feed production waste and packaging materials back into the material cycle. If there is anything that could make us even more sustainable – it certainly isn’t switching over to non-polymer raw materials.
An all-round concept
That is why many environmental scientists prefer the recycling approach, because the life cycle principle doesn’t generate any new waste, instead the waste is fed back into the recycling process. If this was to actually succeed, plastic would be a pronounced ecological material. But of course the plastic producers in the promotional products industry don’t have a closed system, but instead frequently fall back on the source material of the respective upstream suppliers for recycled material – and that is limited in its possibilities. One basically differentiates between “post-consumer“ recycled material – i.e. material that is manufactured from household waste – and plastic waste that arises during the manufacturing or production processes (“postindustrial“). Whereas the latter can relatively simply be collected sorted separately into singleorigin material and processed, consumer plastic faces the recycling companies with huge challenges: Most of the packing materials comprise of composite materials, because the material mix makes them more robust, cheaper, more elastic or optically more attractive. “Many packaging materials could be designed in a more recyclingfriendly way,” according to Wolfgang Schmidt, Promowolsch, “however up until now the resistance of the manufacturers mostly prevents this from happening.”
On top of this many different types of plastic land in the plastic waste – from cling film made of LDPE, to yoghurt cartons made of PP, through to PVC labels or peel-off lids made of polystyrene. Each of these plastics has specific characteristics and melting points, which is why they can’t simply be melted down together. Only PET bottles can be relatively simply sorted separated according to single-origin material. “In the meantime there are technologies with the aid of which different types of plastic can be separated more efficiently prior to the recycling,” commented Koziol. “Nevertheless, it remains to be a big challenge to establish a functioning recycling system, because the consumers muddle everything up.” It is therefore not surprising that according to the European Commission the demand for recycled plastics currently only accounts for around 6% of the plastic demand in Europe. “A basic disadvantage that many recycled plastic mixtures bring with them is the colour,” explained Lewis. “Many products made from recycled materials are only available in dark shades, because many different types and colours of plastic are collected and melted down together. This problem particularly arises with post-consumer plastic. Post-industrial recycled materials are available in a wider variety of colours, because the basic material has been separated more efficiently.”
The “Ritter Cares” series includes the Crest Recycled, a promotional ballpoint pen made of single-origin ABS plastic that is gained from sources of waste rich in plastic – i.e. vacuum cleaners, kitchen appliances and machine tools. All of the plastic parts are separated using a special procedure, shredded and reprocessed into “second life” production granules using modern technology. The positive side-effect: An 80% energy saving during the production process compared to plastic produced conventionally from crude oil. “Currently”, Riedel said, “grey is the lightest colour possible, which is why we offer the pusher in conventional plastic so it is available in any desired colour.”
“Good” plastic has its price
The customer ultimately pays a surcharge for both organic and recycling plastics, as Riedel explained: “Alternative plastics are in some cases more expensive than conventional plastics. That is why the majority of the customers still opts for the ‘normal’ version. The number of companies that strives to position themselves more strongly in the sustainability sector, is nevertheless growing steadily. And organic plastic and recycled products are the basis for good storytelling opportunities.” In this connection, Natalia Chudoba, Marketing Manager of Prominate, the global agency of which Prominate UK is the British shareholder, cites an example for a promotion that the company implemented for the drinks brand Britvic: “During a Wimbledon Championship last year, we designed a recyclable bottle which consumers were able to have personalised at the Britvic stand and which proved a huge advertising success and helped the brand to support their ethical approach. We learnt from subsequent interviews with the client that this was primarily because the bottles were made out of recycled plastic.” However, this specific information has to be supplied in order to emphasise the added value of the product properly. A special type of marketing is needed to sell alternative plastics. Koziol: “With our current Organic Collection you can already tell by the look that the material is recyclable.”
However, there is an increasing demand among the end users and a rethinking of disposable items on a broad scale – even if buyers sometimes have to be educated. Chudoba: “A paradigm shift is taking place. In the face of a large number of buyers, who are placing more and more value on sustainability and who view single-use plastic very critically, brands are recognising that they will not survive if they don’t adopt a sustainable attitude. We have noticed a massive uplift of interest amongst our clients in increasing the number of recyclable and biodegradable items in their collections. We expect this trend to continue.” “The price remains the main obstacle, but one can counteract this through fact-based explanation. We have developed a bespoke educational presentation showing the use of single-use plastic alternatives. If one lists the recycling alternatives for conventional products and their brand benefits, a lot of the customers quickly change their minds in favour of more eco-friendly solutions,” added Webb.
How much is too much?
Anyone who starts questioning the plastic problem, soon advances to a much more global issue: The sense and nonsense of haptic advertising measures. Because there are still huge quantities of disposable products of low quality and low functionality on the promotional products market. “Several users at the PSI Show, who attended the event for the first time, were pretty shocked at how many products that don’t really have a real benefit there are on the market,” reported Koziol. “I myself on the other hand was recently invited to a Sports Ball. A ticket cost 1,000 Euros and give-aways worth a few Cents were distributed there. I asked the people responsible whether they weren’t ashamed of themselves. Of course, give-aways unequivocally have their right to exist, but they should bring with them a certain intrinsic value and design quality. A promotional product has to be functional and bring the user joy in order to ensure it is not immediately disposed of. Luckily, there is a rethinking process taking place, the trash is disappearing.”
In this case, rethinking also means: investing more intelligently instead of implementing the scattergun approach. “We strategically approach the campaign planning and ask clients for the event calendar ahead of time because we know that the giveaways often come at the bottom of the agenda or are frequently not ordered until shortly before the event,” stated Webb. “This allows us to avoid unnecessary waste and allow us more time to source the right product for the right event. In addition to this, we recommend our customers not to place dates on certain items which helps the cost savings and make sure they re-use, recycle and reduce waste.” Lewis: “Buy better and buy less, think more carefully about how many pieces are actually needed rather than getting as many pieces as you can for the budget available.”
Naturally, such a rethinking process doesn’t take place overnight – as is so often the case this means the suppliers and especially the promotional products agencies have to continually keep on advising their customers and explaining the situation to them. “First of all we have to show our customers that there is a market for alternative products and secondly make the alternative models as readily accessible as the conventional ones,” said Alexis Krycève, who has turned such alternative models into his business: His young company, Gifts for Change, unites gifts and giveaways “made in France” from sustainable materials – including wood and linen from domestic, certified cultivation – with the possibility of financing sustainable projects through the sales of the products.
The advantage that shouldn’t be underestimated: In an industry that is still strongly pricedriven and which at the same time permanently calls out for innovations, huge opportunities for competitive advantages arise, as Krycève explained: “When I talk about the business with colleagues from the promotional products industry, I constantly hear sentences like: ‘We need innovation‘, ‘we need to deliver meaning and added value’ or ‘we have to align our purpose‘. The opportunities of distinguishing oneself through really sustainable concepts are obvious.” Hence it is worth daring to move away from the comfortable, conventional path and investing in new approaches – for more ecological, but also economic sustainability. For the time being nobody has to go without the many blessings of synthetic polymers and plastic has its fixed place in the world of haptic advertising – but it certainly doesn’t belong in the oceans or the environment.
// Till Barth
illustration: Jens C. Friedrich, Thomas Gebhard, © WA Media, photos: Shutterstock/ImagineStock (1), Larina Marina (1), Stoyan Yotov (1)