Plastic and our environment

When it comes to the environment, plastic gets a raw deal – often being blamed for using up our petrochemical oil stores, filling up our landfills and poisoning our soils.

In fact, I asked 25 people in our office what they thought the number one item of concern in landfill was, and the majority said plastic. Not a scientific study I know, but it seems it is viewed as a huge problem. So, I thought it was time to look at the facts and figures of plastic production and its impact on our planet.

How much of the world’s petrochemical oil is used to make plastic?
Estimates generally state that about 4% of the world’s annual oil production is used as the raw materials for plastic, and another 4% provides the energy for production, so not all the oil we use is locked up in the plastic itself.

How much oil does it take to make one kilo of plastic?
If you look at HDPE (high density polyethylene), which is an easily recyclable plastic we use in our product packaging, it takes around one and three-quarter litres of oil (including both the raw materials and the energy) to make one kilo of plastic.

What methods are used to dispose of plastic?
Again, let’s look at HDPE. If you bury it in landfill, it’s not going anywhere soon. Current estimates for any plastic decomposition rates vary from 20 years up to 600 years (source: ctenvironment.org), but the simple truth is that plastic hasn’t been around long enough for us to know for certain.

If we incinerate one kilo of HDPE to generate energy, only water and carbon dioxide are produced, but the heating value is equivalent to only three-quarters of a kilo of oil, so in effect, we have lost one kilo forever (remember it took one and three quarter litres of oil to make!) By recycling fossil fuel plastics, we can save roughly four and a half litres of oil for every one and a half kilos recycled, which is a significant saving.

What about plastics that don’t use petrochemical based oil?
Plastics produced from corn may appear to be the perfect solution – they look, feel and behave in a very similar way to ‘traditional’ plastics – but there are questions about the benefits they may have on the environment.

Firstly, there are concerns about genetically modified ingredients (GM), as corn grown for plastic production is likely to be genetically modified, and if you read July’s Letter from Liz you can appreciate the issues this may raise. Growing corn is also an energy intensive task, both in the actual growing (pesticides and fertilisers consume a massive amount of fossil fuels in their production) and the harvesting, processing and transportation, which will almost certainly be powered by fossil fuel oil. As I said earlier, only 50% of the oil used when making plastic is in the raw materials, so the issue of sustainability isn’t completely solved. Growing food crops as monocultures on vast areas of land to produce plastics also throws up some interesting ethical questions. For example, could we be feeding people on this land? And what effect does this have on biodiversity?

What about biodegradable plastic?
Again, this seems like the perfect solution to the waste problem – a plastic container that dissolves harmlessly into the ground – but looking at it in more detail throws up more issues: the disposal of biodegradable plastics causes potential problems with recycling, as it is indistinguishable from traditional plastics, and when mixed in with them can render the whole lot unsuitable for the recycling process. Fundamentally, biodegradable plastic is not recyclable.

Could it also be the case that producing ‘degradable’ plastics sends the wrong message about waste? If the world believes that anything we throw away will disappear without any environmental penalties at all, where is the incentive to improve or reduce what we throw away? A biodegradable plastic bottle is produced using energy and all this investment in energy is lost when it is simply thrown away.

So what is the answer?
Re-using plastic bottles would ensure all the energy used in its production was recovered, but in reality, the re-use of plastic bottles for food or cosmetics would raise issues with hygiene and contamination. You can’t sterilize a plastic bottle very well as it can’t take the heat.

Recycling plastic bottles to produce more bottles (recycling) or recycling bottles to produce items such as drain pipes or car bumpers (downcycling) ensures that at least we retain the value of the raw materials plus a larger proportion of the initial energy investment than if it was thrown away.

Finding the best solution is complex and full of questions, but I believe one answer lies in improving and refining our recycling systems to collect and recycle more plastics. There is certainly a market for it, and bearing in mind the UK alone uses around 275 thousand tonnes of plastic each year (source: recycling-guide.org), there’s an awful lot of energy worth saving.

Finally, with regards to ‘Reduce, Re-use, Recycle’, we should always be looking at reducing the plastics we use. Ian Curtis, our Technical Packaging Manager here at Liz Earle, constantly balances product protection and safety with the need to find ways of reducing the amount of plastic in our packaging.

Geoff Geoff

19 Responses to “Plastic and our environment”

  1. Daniel John said...

    I love Liz Earle and their environmental policies and aims. But my only fault with the company is that some of the bottles sold are types of plastic which are very hard and expensive to recycle. Some bottles are recycle codes 1. PET and 2. HDPE and they are the easiest to recycle. But a few are 5 and 7 and some councils will chuck those types in the landfill and not even recycle due to cost and mix of the plastics. 7 is basically impossible to recycle.

    Other companies now have all bottles recycle codes 1 and 2 without damage to inside product and the easiest to reuse and recycle. Others even use 100% recycled plastic bottles. Please consider the policy of using the containers which are difficult to recycle because its a black spot on a good environmental company policy 🙂

    July 26th, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Reply

    • Geoff Day said...

      Hi, thank you for taking the time to comment.
      The worst possible environmental scenario is product being thrown away because it becomes unusable. Regardless of the recycling category of the plastic it is almost impossible to recycle full packs of product. In these circumstances we would be losing all the embodied energy used to make the container and the contents.
      Therefore our primary consideration when sourcing our packaging is to protect the product and keep it safe. Using the reduce/reuse/recycle principle, we also always go for the solution that uses the smallest amount of plastic possible whilst providing the level of protection required. Occasionally this means that for technical reasons non-recyclable plastics are used – but this is always a last resort.

      August 2nd, 2011 at 10:46 am | Reply

    • Senthil said...

      While recycling IS great, I also think beorfe I buy–for instance when I buy soda pop (yep, not at all healthy, but can’t do without my diet Pepsi), I buy it in cans instead of plastic.Plastic can be upcycled–reused only once or perhaps twice. Cans can be recycled over and over and over…Our town has a great program too. We are fortunate! With recycling and now composting, we only have about a bag of trash every three weeks. Yay!

      August 17th, 2012 at 10:21 am | Reply

  2. Leo Eckley said...

    Very interesting article as I know the whole plastic thing is a minefield. Just use less, I say (and try to do).

    One question though? What about plastic bags. Is there a way to recycle them?

    July 26th, 2011 at 2:45 pm | Reply

    • Geoff Day said...

      Hi, and thank you for your comment – as you say plastic use and recycling is extremely complicated and unfortunately, sometimes there is no easy answer to a problem. The recyclability of plastic bags depends on what they are made from. Carrier bags such as the ones you get from a supermarket are recyclable through collection facilities provided by the stores themselves and local councils. Recycled carrier bags can be made into new carrier bags or often into items like rain guttering.
      Polythene bags are technically recyclable, and your local council may provide the facilities for this, but for mainly economic reasons this is less likely. The main issue is that of collection and storage – there has to be a lot of plastic bags all in one place to make recycling economically viable.
      We only use plastic bags when absolutely necessary for postage, or to keep an item in pristine condition when delivering to customers, and any plastic bags used in house are reused, sometimes using a little bit extra packaging saves a lot of valuable products being damaged. – use a little to save a lot!

      August 2nd, 2011 at 10:47 am | Reply

  3. KateGravestock said...

    I have ben using ENJO cleaning products for 6 years. Am just replacing my cloths for the 3rd time!! No chemical products just water and cloths!
    My daughter had bad excema and still has very sensitive son but with ENJO and Liz Earle she is rash, irritive free!

    July 26th, 2011 at 2:45 pm | Reply

  4. Norma Lynn said...

    I’ve possibly missed it on the sight somewhere but is there any way of recycling my bottles from the Liz Earle product range, My facial moisturizing cream is in quite a hard plastic pot, surely this can be reused?

    July 26th, 2011 at 9:07 pm | Reply

    • Geoff Day said...

      Hi Norma,
      The current UK situation is that the recycling of plastic is dependent on the facilities supplied by your local authority. We are looking at how we as a business can influence the recycling of customer waste. One hurdle we have to get over is how we collect enough waste in one place to make recycling environmentally meaningful.
      For technical reasons we make Superskin Moisturiser and Skin Repair Moisturiser jars from a hard polymer (which carries the number ‘7’ ) that is not generally recycled, however our packaging labeled with a ‘2’ ‘4’ or ‘5’ can be easily recycled where the facilities exist.

      August 30th, 2011 at 10:23 am | Reply

  5. Fiona Simpson said...

    I love Liz Earle products and take the tester/try me sizes when I am away for a day or few. The moisturiser pot and instant boost skin tonic bottle, are both refillable, but the cleanse & polish tube is not. Would it be feasible to make a refillable container for the cleanse and polish try me/travel size, thereby reducing the amount of small containers each person needs to order?

    March 8th, 2012 at 5:20 pm | Reply

  6. Gabrielle Rose said...

    Hi, I’ve been searching the site to find out if the white pellets used as a filler for the packaging can be recylced and came across this section. I think we all want to do what we can for the planet and applaud the Liz Earle Co. for their achievements to date. Fiona Simpson’s idea about refillable containers is great and may reduce postage costs?
    PS I didn’t find an answer about the white pellets can anyone help?

    July 31st, 2012 at 11:44 am | Reply

    • Julie M said...

      I read somewhere that the Liz Earle white pellet packaging is compostable because it’s made from potato starch so I’ve been adding it to my compost bin. Is this true or have I made a terrible mistake and added bits of polystyrene instead?!!

      February 9th, 2016 at 9:54 pm | Reply

  7. Rosie said...

    One way to get people recylcing Liz earle packaging could be to offer a reward syste?! Some Cosmetic companies offer incentives where you return your empties to a store and recieve a gift such as a lipstick. Would this be something Liz earle could concider?

    October 12th, 2015 at 5:41 pm | Reply

  8. Julie said...

    I’m currently searching for products that are more natural and better for my skin and body, but I am also extremely aware of the issue with plastics leaching chemicals into their contents which can cause cancer and disrupt proper hormone function. Is there any way you can use glass instead of plastic? I understand it would add to costs and can be more easily damaged, but it would avoid these concerns and be recyclable/reusable too.

    February 8th, 2016 at 12:11 pm | Reply

    • Geoff Day

      Geoff Day said...

      Hi Julie, thanks so much for your question. We’ve passed it on to our Technical Team and will be in touch again as soon we have further information.

      February 11th, 2016 at 10:15 am | Reply

    • Geoff Day

      Geoff Day said...

      Hi, we’d like to confirm that the polymers used in our plastic packaging are of food grade, which means they are certified as safe for use in contact with food. Currently, we exclusively use virgin polymers as this means we can be 100% sure of its origin.

      However we are increasingly using glass for our primary packaging, in fact several of our more recently launched products are packaged in glass, and we’re using glass for many of our forthcoming products. We hope you’ll understand that for technical reasons it is not always possible to use glass, and that our packaging choices are ultimately based on optimum compatibility with the contents and minimum environmental impact.

      February 18th, 2016 at 3:19 pm | Reply

  9. Liz said...

    I’m a huge fan of Liz Earl and would also like to see the packaging becoming more recyclable. Thanks for clarifying re the pellets in the packaging. Although are they really necessary at all? The items themselves – unless they are glass – are pretty robust.

    I like the idea of the refillable cleanse and polish product, and with regards to the moisturisers could they simply be sold in larger, maybe much larger pots, so at least regular customers simply aren’t using as many pots. I always order them in batches of 3 – is it possible to combine them into one? Just a thought. Keep up the fab work.

    March 18th, 2017 at 2:17 pm | Reply

  10. Anna Houlsby said...

    A quick question: is the 100 ml cleanse and polish container (vacuum pump) recyclable (in the same way that aerosols can now be recycled by councils)? Or …. must it go into general waste headed for landfill?

    April 7th, 2017 at 12:27 pm | Reply

    • Liz Earle Beauty Co.Ltd

      Liz Earle Beauty Co.Ltd said...

      Hi Anna. The environmental performance of our packing is very carefully considered, and where possible recyclable materials are used. All our products have the appropriate recycling logo on them. The main body of our Cleanse & Polish pump is PP (widely recycled) but due to the mechanism of the airless pump there are other polymers included. The airless pump means the product can last for 30 months after opening. Your local council should have information available to help you locate the correct bin for recycling; alternatively, the website http://www.recycle-more.co.uk has extremely useful recycling information. We hope this helps.

      April 10th, 2017 at 10:19 am | Reply

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