Descartes UK

Security Sealing in a New World of Eco, Bio and the Circular Economy

Security Sealing in a New World of Eco, Bio and the Circular Economy

Security Seals are an important element in the logistics process and, when used properly, guarantee a consignment arrives at its destination as it was dispatched. Originally manufactured in steel and tinplate, plastic seals started to make inroads into the market in the late 1960s and early 1970s and their ease of use, safety and adaptability caused demand to grow exponentially - until now. Many companies are deciding to take plastics out of their supply chain, to use less fossil fuel based materials, reduce their carbon footprint and avoid plastic waste in the environment.

As a plastic seal manufacturer, you would expect Unisto to take a slightly different position on the avoidance of seals made of thermoplastic. Polypropylene, polyethylene and polyamide are all by-products of the petrochemical industry, which we still rely on to provide fuel for most of our vehicles, aircraft, and shipping. The by-products are still available without needing to pump more fossil fuel from the ground. 

The security arena is a perfect one for recycling. A security seal should never be discarded but controlled, even after use. A used security seal can continue to provide evidence after it has been removed from an application, should an unexplained shortage be found in the consignment it was protecting. Therefore, it should be kept securely for a period after use and then placed in the recycling. 

If carelessly dropped on the ground a spent security seal can become a very useful test piece for any rogue that picks it up. Heathrow Airport is a fine example. Plastic seal waste was so plentiful at all the distribution sites that almost no seal was safe from tampering. All plastic security seals were considered useless at deterring theft, as every crook that worked around there knew how to open them without leaving too much evidence, they had been able to practice without limit on all the waste seals at the kerbside. So plastics pollution and poor security control went hand-in-hand.

Seals are used in quantity and can easily be collected by the driver and returned to their DC or retained by the delivery site for recycling. Seal suppliers need to work together with their customers to ensure that seal recycling becomes an important final step in its lifecycle. This is for now a vision of the future, a work-in-progress. From 1st April 2022, our government along with the European Union, will levy a tax on plastic packaging, including bioplastics, containing less than 30% recycled material at £200 per tonne. As a result of this measure, it is predicted that recycling will become both more lucrative and popular. 

Environmentally Friendly Plastics:

In response to this move, Unisto has created an EcoGrade range of polypropylene (PP) security seals that includes at least 30% recycled PP and has re-engineered popular products to use less material without compromising on quality, effectiveness, or ease of use. 

The development of new materials to deal with the twin issues of environmental degradation due to plastic waste and the reduction in use of fossil-based feedstocks has led to bewilderment amongst consumers about the different types of “environmentally friendly” materials on the market.

There is confusion about the various terminologies used for new plastic materials. We see terms such as biodegradable and compostable, bio-based and biopolymer. All these terms have their own technical definitions, but it is baffling for the consumer.

To address the first two; biodegradable and compostable. These are highly unlikely to be made into security seals. By their nature they are very short-term-use materials that can produce garbage, garden, and food waste sacks. Bio-based and bioplastics are made from renewable biomass materials such as the pulp residue from the harvest and processing of sugarcane and the like. This sounds nice and natural, but it doesn’t mean you can throw it onto your compost heap and let it decompose, it won’t. 

Unisto has launched a range of seals moulded from minimum 94% bio-based polyethylene material. It is environmentally friendly in so much as it uses up to just 6% of petrochemical derived ethylene in its production, thus potentially leaving that oil in the ground. In all respects, the polymerized ethylene (PE) has the same properties as that derived from oil, so can be recycled but cannot be composted either domestically or industrially using heat and pressure. 

There is a type of degradable material that is of concern to environmentalists and that is oxo-biodegradable plastic. This plastic uses metal salt additives to speed the degradation process and is not considered compostable according to international standards. It is widely feared that the polymer breaks-up into harmful microplastics. A ban on this type of biodegradable material is likely in future. 

Other biomaterials include corn starch, polylactic acid (PLA) from sugars in corn starch or sugarcane and polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) a microbial by product that can be used to replace plastics like styrene and polystyrene. These materials do biodegrade over time, but the timescale is still quite long. 

Bioplastics are taking us in the right direction by avoiding petrochemicals, however they are not a complete solution. If we can’t handle the enduring plastic waste we produce now producing more seems unlikely to be of benefit without an engrained culture in society to recycle.

Carbon footprint reduction and the circular economy

Reusable electronic seals have been in the market since 1985, pioneered by Encrypta Electronics and inventor and Bletchley Park codebreaker Gil Hayward (1917-2011). Unisto acquired Encrypta in 2002 and has developed the two reusable truck seals, C2K and Manta into rugged, long service security devices that provide up to 35,000 sealing events in their lifetime. 

The long life and reliability of these two products has brought convenience and efficiency to security sealing, as the seal lives on the trailer or vehicle door and generates a random number each time it is closed. A brightly lit numeric LED seal display is visible in all light conditions with the seal number being recorded on the manifest or photographed and emailed to the destination site to check on arrival.

C2K manufacture generates a total of 9.39kg and Manta 16.74kg of carbon dioxide per unit. In replacing up to 35,000 plastic seals, removes a footprint of about 245kg CO2, for that quantity, from the atmosphere (circa 7kg per 1,000 plastic seals) per unit fitted. 

Unisto’s circular economy vision is for reusable seals to be returned, repaired, and replaced ensuring that Fleet and Security Managers always have working seals in service and pay only for the sealings they need. Spreading reusable seal use from trucks to many other applications, capturing the data in the cloud for super-fast analysis by AI software and providing real-time loss prevention alerts, managed by exception only. It all sounds like a pipedream, although it is starting to take shape, and when it does the environmental benefit in replacing the plastic seal will be profound.