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Plastic, not so fantastic

Plastic, not so fantastic

Justine Matchett 24 Jan 2018
Earlier this month China implemented a ban on the importation of 24 categories of recyclables and solid waste. This ban on yang laji, or “foreign garbage”, applies to plastic, textiles and mixed paper with China intending instead to replace imported materials with recycled material collected from within China. Last year, Chinese manufacturers imported 7.3 million metric tonnes of waste plastics from countries including the UK, the EU, the US and Japan therefore the impact of the ban could be significant. Analysis of customs data[1] by Greenpeace[2] shows that the UK exports almost two-thirds of its total waste to China, with UK businesses having shipped more than 2.7 million tons of plastic waste there and to Hong Kong since 2012. Since China has historically been the major worldwide importer of recycled plastic, there are now justifiable concerns that much of the world’s waste will have nowhere to go. What’s China’s problem? The problem for China is not the quantity of waste coming from the UK but its quality, with imports increasingly being considered too hazardous for them to recycle.  Many local authorities collect mixed recycling via a single bin. Whilst this saves space and is convenient for the householder, plastic is often mixed with other materials resulting in high contamination levels, leading to reduced quality.  Changes to the way recycling is collected and reprocessed could improve the quality of material produced but would be costly.   The Recycling Association has recently launched its Quality First campaign[3], to raise awareness of the need for the UK to improve the quality of its recyclable materials.  If quality is not improved, then other countries may follow China’s example - leading to the possibility of further declining markets for UK materials. Since we don’t have the capacity to use all the recycled material we are able to recover, it makes commercial and environmental sense to export it for reuse elsewhere, rather than incinerating it or sending it to landfill. Since many of the plastic products we recycle in the UK were manufactured in China in the first place, it made commercial sense that we exported recycled plastic back there for reuse in future Chinese manufacturing processes.  It now seems only sensible that efforts are made to improve the quality of materials available for export.   RECycling Of Used Plastics Limited (RECOUP) is a registered charity and not-for-profit organisation that aims to maximise efficient plastics’ recycling. RECOUP’s Stuart Foster expressed concerns that there were indications as far back as 2008 that the Chinese market might be restricted in future but no action was taken in the UK.  Recently, Environment Secretary Michael Gove admitted he didn’t know what the impact of the ban would be. “It’s … something to which – I will be completely honest – I have not given sufficient thought,” he told MPs.   So what’s the scale of the problem in the UK? RECOUP has recently published its UK Household Plastics Collection Survey 2017[4] using data, estimates and views gathered from UK local authorities and waste management companies. This estimates that in 2017, there were 2,260,000 tonnes of plastics’ packaging placed on the UK market.  A staggering 13 billion plastic bottles are used each year in the UK - that’s 36 million every day – 1.5 bottles per household. Overall, RECOUP identified a recycling rate of just under 45% across all sectors.   63% was exported and 37% was recycled domestically.  The rigid plastic packaging collected for recycling from UK households makes up just over 50% of the total plastics packaging recycled. The remaining plastic that is not recycled (either at home or abroad) either goes to landfill or energy recovery facilities.   So now that China has stopped accepting the UK’s plastic waste, what can we do with it? Plastics collected through household recycling could be directed to commercial energy recovery facilities which utilise gasification technology to generate electricity. Last year, Lichfields secured planning permission for the development of an energy recovery facility (with fluidised bed reactors gasification technology) for Port of Tyne in North Tyneside. It will generate 25MW of clean renewable energy from approximately 190,000 tonnes of refuse derived fuel (RDF) per annum. The proposal represents a £85 million investment in North Tyneside, which could deliver an £57 million increase in local Gross Value Added (GVA) per annum over the anticipated 2 year build period. In this case, the facility has been designed to process only non-recyclable waste, in accordance with the requirements of the Waste (England and Wales) Regulations 2011[5]. The hierarchy gives top priority to waste prevention, followed by preparing for reuse, then recycling, other types of recovery (including energy recovery) and last of all disposal (e.g. landfill). Although not ideal, the potential clearly exists for gasification technology to utilise a fuel feedstock which includes plastics which have hitherto been sent overseas for recycling. In addition to addressing the need to deal with surplus plastic, commercial energy recovery facilities could assist in meeting UK energy self- sufficiency objectives. For this to become a reality there is a need for the Government to invest in new energy recovery plants across the UK.   In the absence of sufficient energy recovery facilities to utilise all the surplus plastic, the ‘easy’ option would be to send the plastic to landfill.  This could only be a short term solution, as there is already a shortage of capacity within existing and planned sites. Rather than being disposed of, recycled plastic could also be used to provide chemicals to the petrochemical sector, fuels to the transport and aviation sectors, food packaging and many other applications. Another option may be to make provision for the long-term storage of plastic waste, until new markets can be found for it. This too is problematic, not just in terms of the amount of storage space needed but also due to the susceptibility of plastic storage to fires.   Time for a culture change? Historically we have relied on the worldwide trade in waste management to deal with UK waste. Perhaps now is the time to try and take responsibility for our waste and a good way to begin would be to rethink our use of plastic. Should we ultimately aim to limit the use of plastics to items which are required to be disposable by necessity for hygiene reasons, such as medical items - for instance blood bags - rather than allowing its continued use for items which are disposable for convenience only?   Retailers need to be encouraged to be proactive and reconsider their packaging to limit the use of plastics. An example of this is the pub chain JD Wetherspoon which has banned disposable, one-use plastic drinking straws. Pret A Manger has also recently doubled its discount for customers who use their own coffee cups, offering customers with a reusable cup a 50p discount on hot drinks in a bid to “help change habits”. Starbucks and Costa also offer discounts of 25p for customers with their own cup.   Deposit and return schemes for plastic bottles could also help incentivise behaviour, in the way it did with glass drinks bottles in the 1970’s.  More recently the introduction of plastic bag charges has been successful and demonstrates that financial disincentives can also work. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) announced that the number of single-use plastic bags used by shoppers in England plummeted by more than 85% after the introduction of the 5p charge. This is set to increase further with the Government’s latest announcement that it is to extend the uptake of the plastic bag charge to small retailers.   The widespread use of plastic bottles is of particular concern. RECOUP estimates that the average UK household uses nearly 500 plastic bottles a year, but only recycles just under 290 (60%) of them. Research is needed into alternatives such as compostable bottles. ‘Plant Made Bottles’[6] are manufactured in the UK from Polylactic Acid (PLA), an annually renewable plant source, rather than fossil fuels. The bottles produce 60% less greenhouse gases and use 50% less fossil fuels in their production. PLA is derived 100% from plants such as corn, cassava and sugar beet. PLA bottles bio-degrade in conditions >60° C, and will burn without releasing pollutants into the atmosphere. Plant made bottles are also fully compostable, again without releasing pollutants into the atmosphere. They can be used for a wide range of products including water, milk products and fruit pulps and so have the potential for widespread commercial use.   Just as I finalised this Blog, the Government published ‘A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment[7]’. This is presented as a comprehensive and long-term approach to protecting and enhancing the UK’s natural landscapes and habitats. Included within the document is the Government’s intention of working to a target of eliminating avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042 (‘avoidable’ being defined as meaning what is technically, environmentally and economically practicable). Whilst this and the other commitments contained within the 25 Year Plan are desirable, they can only be achieved if they are supported by the necessary legislation - which may still be some time off.   In the meantime, it’s clear that to solve the plastic problem will take a widespread change in our cultural attitude and in particular our reliance on disposable products. This is something we can contribute to by swapping our daily disposable takeaway coffee cup or water bottle for reusable ones…. It could be time to treat yourself to a new cup.  [1] UK Trade Info Date 2012-2017[2] https://unearthed.greenpeace.org/2017/12/07/china-plastic-scrap-ban-crisis-uk-recycling/[3] http://www.therecyclingassociation.com/about-us/quality-first  [4] http://www.recoup.org/p/229/uk-household-plastics-collection-survey-2016 [5] http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2011/988/contents/made [6] http://plantmadebottles.co.uk/ [7] https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/673203/25-year-environment-plan.pdf 

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The future of intergenerational care

The future of intergenerational care

Justine Matchett 08 Aug 2017
Last week my youngest daughter graduated from nursery, ready to start primary school in September. I calculated that in the five years since 2012 we have spent over £76,000 on nursery care for our two children. Childcare is clearly a booming business!   Whilst the care my girls received during their time at nursery was fantastic there were two areas where I always thought it could be improved: firstly by the introduction of male staff; and secondly by the development of links with the community and in particular local care homes.   In 2000 the BBC reported that for every 100 people working in childcare, only two are men. The Children's Workforce Development Council (CWDC) questioned 1,000 parents about the issue of men working in nurseries.  59% of respondents said there was not a single man employed at the nursery to which they sent their child. The CWDC is calling for more men to consider working in early years settings. They say it is crucial for children under the age of five to have contact with a responsible male adult.   Whilst it appears to be difficult to persuade men of the benefits of working in the nursery care sector the benefits of regular interactions between children and older people are widely accepted. In 1976, a Japanese man named Shimada Masaharu trialled the operation of a nursery and care home on a single site in Tokyo. By 1998, sixteen such intergenerational facilities were operating in Tokyo alone. Around the same time similar facilities were developed in the USA and Canada. One particularly successful example is the Intergenerational Learning Centre which opened in Seattle in 1991 where a nursery is located within the campus of a care home. Children are taken to visit the residents on a daily basis and residents can visit the nursery, with both taking part in a programme of structured joint activities such as singalong time, craft activities and cooking.   In Singapore childcare facilities and senior centres are to be co-located in ten new projects in the next decade to provide opportunities for intergenerational bonding, as part of a £1.69 billion national plan to help Singaporeans age confidently and lead active lives. The Singapore government is also encouraging existing operators of elder care facilities to introduce innovative programming that allows the young and old to interact.   Numerous studies by the US National Institute on Aging have linked social interaction with decreased loneliness, delayed mental decline, lower blood pressure, and reduced risk of disease and death in older people. Socialising across generations has also been shown to increase the amount of smiling and conversation among older adults, according to one Japanese study[1] . This seems to be borne out by a new Channel 4 documentary ‘Old People’s Home for Four Year Olds’[2] aired recently, which sees pre-schoolers swap their nursery for a nursing home as they join a group of pensioners at a care home for six weeks. The researchers noted an almost immediate improvement in the mood and emotional state of the elderly residents and, more surprisingly, an unexpected improvement in their mobility.   Whilst the benefits to the elderly of spending time with young children are well known, the impact this intergenerational interaction has on children has been less researched. It is suggested that children who are able to spend regular time with older people are more likely to develop a positive view of them, be less likely to view them as incompetent and leave them less likely to exhibit ageism.  This can only be a positive influence on their early development.   The first nursery in the UK to share the same site as a care home and where children and residents will meet daily for activities will open in September in Clapham, London. ‘Apples and Honey Nightingale’ are to operate a 30-place nursery in the grounds of Nightingale House, a residential care home for serving the Jewish community. Nightingale House has around 200 residents at the site and the average resident is in their 90s, with 10 per cent of them aged 100 or older.  The nursery has been running a weekly baby and toddler group based at the care home since January 2017 and prior to that Apples and Honey had been visiting the care home for about 15 years twice a term. The intention is for the elderly residents and the children to eat their meals together and for residents to become involved in many of the Early Years curriculum activities which are organised for the children. The operators are looking at how best to make the curriculum intergenerational, with children and residents spending time together every day, cooking and baking, doing exercise and movement classes, music and arts and crafts.   The idea of intergenerational care in the UK is being pioneered by ‘United for All Ages’, a think tank and social enterprise developing new ‘all ages’ approaches to key social and economic issues. They have been actively meeting with nursery groups, care providers and local authorities to develop the idea of co-locating nursery and elder care. Whilst some care homes invite children in from nurseries for visits this is very much a one-off and the aim of United for All Ages is to make co-location part of everyday life. Whilst this will likely be a slow process there is evidence that some operators are embracing the idea of intergenerational care. UK nursery group Busy Bees is opening a new nursery in Chichester next door to an Anchor care home, and Torbay Council in Devon has plans for an intergenerational care site.  Lorraine George, a childminding development worker at Torbay has recently been awarded a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship to look at intergenerational learning and is to visit successful sites across the USA. Summing up her enthusiasm for intergenerational development Lorraine George said: It’s such a simple idea. We have a lot of children who have very little family, or who are removed from their extended family. Most families are time poor; elderly people have plenty of time and there’s such a good exchange of skills. In my opinion intergenerational care appears to offer significant benefits for everyone involved, including the operators of such facilities who could undoubtedly benefit from cost savings in terms of design and operation of shared facilities.  Hopefully with the support of pioneers such as United for All Ages, the development of facilities such as Apples and Honey Nightingale will become more widespread across the UK, bringing benefits for generations to come. In light of the recognised shortfall in nursery provision across parts of the UK there is a potential opportunity for care home operators to diversify their standard product to provide intergenerational facilities which not only maximise profitability but offer significant benefits for all their customers, both young and old.   [1] Morita and Kobayashi; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2013 [2] http://www.channel4.com/programmes/old-peoples-home-for-4-year-olds  

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