April 21, 2020 | Return to News

Imagine the Empire State Building on a scale. Can you infer its weight?

Now imagine 25,000 exact replicas of this colossal building, all together, on the same scale. That weight would be the equivalent of all the plastic produced between 1950 and 2015: 8,300 million metric tons.

This was calculated by a group of scientists from UC Santa Barbara, which was led by Roland Geyer, and which presented the first global analysis of all mass-produced plastics in 2017 [1].

The scariest thing about this figure is that more than half of that amount was produced in the last 15 years and over 70% of total production is now in the waste streams of landfills and in the oceans rather than in recycling centres. In fact, a preliminary report of the study revealed that about 8 million tons of garbage are dumped into the sea every year. And this trend will increase in the coming years, according to the study.

Given this scenario, it is worth asking how we can take action against plastic pollution. Sometimes small actions can generate big impacts, as the Linxon UK team has shown.

As part of National Grid’s Hinkley Connection Project, Linxon is responsible for the construction of the connection between the new Shurton substation and the adjacent Hinkley Point C nuclear generation site. A duty of such magnitude requires the participation of numerous outdoors workers, who due to their physical labour need adequate supplies of drinking water to reduce the risks of dehydration-related disorders. Hence, single-use plastic water bottles are commonplace across the construction industry.

The British HSE suggests a consumption of 250ml every 15 minutes when working hard or at high rate and, if workers have limited access, 500ml per hour before starting and in their rest periods [2]. Considering also that single-use plastic individual bottles are between 330 ml and 500 ml, each worker would need between 8 and 24 bottles a day.

Making sure that our workers have adequate water consumption is essential but single-use bottles create a large amount of waste, not to mention their high carbon footprint; approximately 0,5 kg of CO2 are emitted to make a single 330ml plastic bottle from scratch [3].

Aware of this problem, the team led by Claire Warman, Linxon UK HSE Manager, provided all Shurton substation’s workers with re-usable water bottles that are created from sugarcane-based material. Why this is important? Because the polymer used to produce them is created from the leftovers of sugar cane extraction instead of oil based. James Woollard, Polythene UK Director, explained that during the growth of the sugar cane, the natural process of photosynthesis sees carbon actively captured meaning the polymer is initially carbon negative. The amount of captured carbon is almost equivalent to the amount of carbon expended when using oil-based polymers, which means the benefit to the environment is huge [4]. In fact, it is believed that sugar cane water bottles have 75% less embedded carbon than plastic. And if this were not enough, sugarcane polymers are a renewable resource and do not expend fossil fuels, unlike the oil-based ones. Once transportation, electricity and other needed energy usages are taken into account, the bottle are close to being carbon neutral.

‘These sugar cane bottles reduce plastic use, are dishwasher safe so easy for everyone to use and are very popular on site’, Claire also emphasised.

Each water bottle cost approximately £2. While other water reusable water bottles such as plastic could be purchased for less money, they would not have the added environmental benefits of using sugarcane material. Also, they can be cleaned in a dishwasher to ensure safe reuse.

Linxon UK have also made the refilling points more prominent within the welfare facilities to encourage the use of such bottles both on site and in the site office. In this way, all staff will remain properly hydrated and healthy.

This solution has significantly reduced the use of single use plastic water bottles and is especially good for contained projects like substations, linear projects such as overhead line works have additional issues around the transport of bulk water away from the main site office.

References:

[1] R. Geyer, J. R. Jambeck and K. Lavender Law, “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made,” Science Advances, vol. 3, no. 7, p. e1700782, 2017.
[2] The Health and Safety Executive, “Dehydration,” [Online]. Available: https://www.hse.gov.uk/temperature/dehydration.htm.
[3] S. Ustun Odabasi and H. Buy Ukgungor, “PET Water Bottle: A Carbon Footprint Assessment,” in 1ST INTERNATIONAL BLACK SEA CONGRESS ON ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES (IBCESS), Giresun, Turkey, 2016.
[4] J. Woollard, “The benefits of sugar cane polythene over oil-based polythene,” 16 04 2016. [Online]. Available: https://www.packagingnews.co.uk/features/comment/the-benefits-of-sugar-cane-polythene-over-oil-based-polythene-james-woollard-19-04-2016.