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 Special Report Reflecting on 30 years

Founded in 1983, Leeds-based Cromwell Polythene is celebrating 30 years in business this year. James Lee, the company’s chairman, looks at how the market has changed over that period.

As I reflect on themany changes that have taken place sincemy company was founded 30 years ago I realise that the humble black plastic bag is, in some ways, a barometer of howmost of our lives have altered during that period. Socially and commercially (cer- tainly Cromwell Polythene’s fortunes are closely linked to the black bag) - not least as a result of the legislative changes to which we have all been subjected in that time. In 1983, when we started the company,

most local authorities were using black sacks for the storage and collection of do- mestic refuse. A typical borough council serving 50-60,000 households with a weekly bin collection would be using upwards of threemillion bags a year and orders of five, six, or sevenmillion sacks were not uncom- mon among the larger authorities. Sack schemes had revolutionised dustbin

rounds, allowing collectors to bring full bags of waste to the kerbside ahead of the refuse carts, so that rounds were completed more quickly. Not only were bag schemes faster, but the resultant cleaner bins brought improved hygiene benefits as well. Recycling was not on anyone’s radar, so

the use of coloured sacks for the collection and segregation of different recyclables had not yet been conceived. Coloured sacks were nonetheless in use following publica- tion of guidelines to help establish standard colours for specific waste streams by the Chartered Institution ofWasteManage- ment. Green for garden waste schemes (often chargeable), blue for commercial or trade waste, yellow for clinical waste, red for asbestos and so on. Back in the ‘good old days’ wheeled bins

were just gaining a foothold in the local au- thoritymarket, particularly with rear end loading vehicles fitted with the bin lift at- tachments, thereby heralding another revo- lution in the collection ofmunicipal waste. Then in widespread use in continental Eu- rope, the practice has since been adopted in the UK as the pre-eminentmethod of col- lection acrossmany waste streams. Nowadays, black bag orders running into

themillions are rare, but natural (clear), or coloured sacks still offer a low cost, conven- ient and hygienic solution for the storage and collection of recyclables and for segre- gation at source, bags have no equal. So it’s not surprising that reduced sales of black bags to local authorities have beenmore than offset by a veritable rainbow of colour options, an astonishing range of specifica- tions - including tie-handle and bag on roll packaging options - and amuch broader customer base, served in large part by the cleaning and janitorial distributors who make up the lion’s share of Cromwell Poly- thene’s customers today. As a further demonstration of their flexi-

bility, bagsmade frombiodegradable and compostable plastic for kitchen caddy bin liners are now recognised byWRAP, the Government-funded wasteminimisation body, as being fundamental tomaximise the participation rates for food waste recycling.

28 l C&M l JANUARY 2014 l

bags suitable for food use, often tinted blue, are helping to keep food hygienic bymin- imising the risk of contamination, while other sacks are used safely to contain by- products and waste. Increased awareness of the need to recycle, coupled with regula- tion, notably in Scotland,means that all businessesmust embrace recycling as we are being led - willingly sometimes, kicking or screamingmore often - towards a zero waste society. Bags and receptacles are key to safe and hygienic segregation of different waste streams. Also driven by health and safety, the use

of PPE and bags in the healthcare sector has grown significantly in the last 30 years. With the NHS alone spending £40million on waste disposal, generating 250,000 tonnes of waste a year, of which asmuch as half is non-hazardous and could be safely dis- posed of to landfill, greater emphasis is being placed on the need to segregate waste at consumer and ward level. Different coloured bags and clearly labelled bins are the key to enabling staff and the public to dispose of waste in a way that will facilitate themost efficient and lowest cost route to treatment and disposal. This sector is heavily regulated, with spe-

James Lee, chairman of Leeds-based Cromwell Polythene: “Humblemaybe, but this is a product that has re-invented itself, adapted tomarket forces, continues to provide tangible health benefits, still enjoys a lower environmental impact than any other containment or disposal method, andwhich provides a livelihood formany in the cleaning and hygiene sector.”

Whether it’s the ubiquitous black sack,

coloured recycling bags, special waste sacks, or compostable food waste bags, they have all benefited from the advances in polymer technology, including light-weight- ing or ‘value engineering’, which have brought about reductions in thickness, typi- cally some 35%lower than in the 80s, re- sulting in lower costs, as well as reduced environmental impact throughout the pro- duction process and supply chain. It is interesting, too, that while our waste

sacks have always had a high recycled con- tent - typically 97 to 100% - it is only in the last 10 years that we have been able to shout about it due to consumers’ changed perceptions about the environment and quality issues. Until then the use of recycled materials was widely accepted commer- cially, but only became socially acceptable more recently. In the cleaning and hygiene sector, health

and safety and food hygiene standards have been a major driver, increasing the demand for disposable hygiene products like aprons, gloves,mob caps and bags throughout the supply chain. In food production and process factories, for example, gloves and

cial requirements for the safe transporta- tion of hazardous (clinical) waste, so no wonder that trade associations like the San- itaryMedical Disposal Services Association, formed in 1993 tomaintain high standards within the sanitary,medical and clinical wastes'management industry, have grown in stature and influence.Members,my own company among them, include those in- volved in collection and disposal of these wastes, in addition to associated activities such as themanufacture of specialist con- tainers and environmental consultancy. The last 30 years have thankfully seen the

end of white vanman, offering the cheap collection and disposal of healthcare waste fromcare homes, nursing homes and simi- lar establishments. Regulations introduced during the intervening yearsmean that op- eratorsmust have relevant waste carrier li- censes and that the wastemust be contained in approved bags or containers, tested and certified as UN Packages.More- over, the producer has a responsibility through the duty of care act to ensure that waste is treated and disposed of correctly. Readers will note a recurring theme in

this article. I cannot think of another indus- try in which legislation and regulation has figured so prominently over the past 30 years. All things considered, though, despite the

threat of bans or taxation to carrier bags through themisguided actions of politicians and well-intending environmentalists prom- ulgatingmisinformation that ignores sci- ence over spin, it is gratifying that the market for bags for the collection and stor- age of waste and recycling is increasing. And rightly so. Humblemaybe, but this is a product that has re-invented itself, adapted tomarket forces, continues to provide tan- gible health benefits, still enjoys a lower en- vironmental impact than any other containment or disposalmethod, and which provides a livelihood formany in the clean- ing and hygiene sector.

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