Sustainable manufacturing and the UK

By Philip Law, British Plastics Federation

The key point about Sustainability is that it is a journey and not a destination. As a concept it is closely akin to continuous improvement, about changing business for the better and in this the UK has an unparalleled record. Several factors have provided the stimulus :

  • Exposure of UK component suppliers to the demands of Japanese Original Equipment Manufacturers in the 1980s and 90s
  • Successive cost escalations for energy, raw materials and insurance over the 2000s
  • Governmental initiatives such as the Climate Change Levy which provided both a carrot and a stick for manufacturers to attend to energy efficiency.
  • The growth of Corporate Social Responsibility as a concept particularly amongst major end users and retailers. Their target-setting on materials usage, wastage, recycling, energy efficiency and other ethical requirements has been translated into product specifications which has to be responded to by designers and manufacturers.
  • The ‘greening’ of Public Sector purchasing particularly in the wake of the Rio Earth Summit of 1992 and the local adaptation of Agenda 21 , an environmental programme for the 21st Century.

UK manufacturers are well ahead on the road to Sustainability and as the industry’s trade association, the British Plastics Federation has taken a lead in showing the way. The first port of call for anyone wishing to access the UK’s considerable expertise in this field is to consult the BPF website and in particular its Industry Directory of product and service providers.

In the first instance the UK is a natural location for the manufacture of plastics. It is just one expression of the country’s industrial culture. Resources of coal, then the discovery of oil and natural gas offshore provided the basic feedstocks for manufacturing the raw material. The varied geology of the UK, such as deposits of Calcium Carbonate also provided many additive sources. Additionally regional skills in working with metals, wool and cotton were able to be adapted to plastics and it is no surprise that the key areas for the manufacture of plastics products in the UK today are those very areas where traditional manufactures were strong.

No country understands how sustainability applies to an industrial material like the UK. There is a strong tradition of  positive dialogue with balanced environmental organisations such as Forum for the Future, the Natural Step and the  National  Non Food Crops Centre (
Just to take one example, the UK PVC industry was a pioneer in positively responding to the pressure applied by the environmental movement and the retail sector. Today the UK is amongst the leaders in Europe in the recycling of  long-life PVC building products under the industry’s pan-European recycling scheme ‘Recovinyl’ (

In the evolution of a product, design is the first stage and ‘design for sustainability’ is emerging as a key theme in the training of the next generation of UK designers. Centres well worth consulting are: The Design Council which has a considerable body of online resources accessible through, Envirowise a UK government funded agency which focuses on resource efficiency has valuable case studies and an Eco-design Indicator featured on its website (

In terms of actual manufacturing there is enormous support offered by first rate academic institutions.  Covering the subject as a whole is Cambridge University’s Sustainable Manufacturing Group.:

More specifically on the contribution of plastics engineering University expertise in plastics raw materials is exemplified by The University of Loughborough , London Metropolitan University, the Universities of Leeds, Durham and Sheffield and Nanoforce based at Queen Mary College, London University .

For plastics processing technology The Universities of Bradford and Belfast are key. All these institutions are members of the British Plastics Federation’s Business Support Network and can be accessed through

Additionally much helpful information on materials can be located on the website of the government funded Materials Knowledge Transfer Network ( who collaborated closely with the BPF in compiling this guide.

There is a developing interest in bio-based and degradable plastics in the UK although the actual usage remains small. The centre of expertise in this is the British Plastics Federation’s Group of leading manufacturers in the field which is active in setting standards for both products and commercial behaviour in this poorly understood field (

Plastics Recycling is a great recent success story in the UK. Now over 25% of plastics packaging is being recycled. One third of all EPS packaging manufactured in the UK is now recycled, well over 500 tonnes. The recycling of milk bottles has also been an outstanding development with over 72% of the HDPE containers recycled in 2009. A driving force behind this is the British Plastics Federations Recycling Council (

A good source of information is the government’s waste Resources Action Plan (WRAP) which can be reached through  The UK plastics industry is engaging with its stakeholders to identify and overcome the barriers to greater recycling in a programme called the Plastics 2020 Challenge which aims to ultimately see all used plastics diverted from landfill. You can participate in this debate on

The British Plastics Federation have launched a professional network which brings together over 1000 UK plastics industry networks many of whom have expertise in sustainable manufacturing.  You can join this and share your own expertise by logging on to

Remember that sustainability is a continuing journey. New issues will continually appear, new solutions will have to be found and new bodies of knowledge created. This is a fast moving field where no-one can afford to stand still.