Plastic can be fantastic

Plastic’s light, cheap and endlessly useful. It’s also indestructible and has been polluting our planet for decades. We all know this, but it took Sir David Attenborough, broadcaster, writer and naturalist, through his thought-provoking Blue Planet II, to galvanise us all into taking action. Terri Taylor, Marketing Executive, Intergas, discusses how the H&V industry can do its bit.

That we have to reduce our reliance on plastic is not up for discussion, but as much as we are growing to love to hate this material, it remains one of the most amazing inventions of the 20th century, and one that would be hard, or even wrong, to replace in certain products. Plastic is a relatively new material, but it goes further back than some of us might think. It was actually invented in the mid-1800s by Birmingham born metallurgist, Alexander Parkes. He patented Parkesine, a material described as ‘hard as horn and as flexible as leather’, but his enterprise was not a success; American printer, John Wesley Hyatt, fared better when he invented celluloid in 1863; its uses were widespread from jewellery, combs and toys to detachable collars and cuffs (celluloid film was commercially available in 1889); but it was Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland who really got things going when, in 1907, he invented the first fully synthetic plastic (where no natural molecules are present) called Bakelite, that its endless uses were first realised. As the technology advanced, plastic was being used in almost everything and everywhere, from cookware to footwear and from front doors to false teeth. But with the pressure on all of us to reduce our plastic ‘consumption’ are we prepared to give up our false teeth to save the world from death by plastic? Probably not.

That doesn’t mean we can’t make a difference,  and we need to as far as far as single-use plastic is concerned; Frans Timmermans, vice-president of the European Commission, succinctly it summed up with: “Single-use plastics take five seconds to produce, are used for five minutes, then take 500 years to break down again.” The good news is that sales of single-use carrier bags in the are down 86% since the 5p charge was introduced in England in October 2015. It’s a good start, but much more needs to be done and major retailers are already doing their bit. On 6th June 2019 Sainsbury’s became the first UK supermarket to remove plastic from its loose fruit, vegetables and bakery items. This one action alone will reduce the chain’s plastic output by 489 tonnes and it has plans to do far more; it’s probably worth noting that last year Sainsbury’s came bottom of Greenpeace UK’s supermarket plastics league table. But if that’s what it took to make them take this major step, then thumbs up to Greenpeace for naming and shaming, and well done Mike Coupe, Sainsbury’s CEO, for pressing the plastic eject button.

But plastic is not always the enemy; it insulates, protects, conserves and helps our homes and industry run efficiently; we need it, but that doesn’t mean we can’t reduce its use where it makes sense to do so. Intergas took the decision to keep plastic use to a minimum in boiler manufacture decades ago but, admittedly, that was more to do with our quality standards than environmental awareness. Now, we steadfastly refuse to do so and are committed to making a meaningful and positive environmental impact. We only use three plastic components in our boilers (the ignition module, internal flue and pressure sensor), making our boilers 90% recyclable, but we’re working on increasing their recyclability, and we have support in making that happen. Rheem, the water and heating solutions manufacturer, based in America, which acquired Intergas at the end of May, has just launched its sustainability initiative with extremely aggressive targets, one of which is to achieve zero waste to landfill in its global manufacturing operations by 2025, and that includes us.