Addressing plastic waste is rapidly evolving into one of the key environmental challenges facing humankind. It is a global problem, notably leading to an excess of plastic pollution in the ocean and the wider environment.
Considerable effort is needed along the entire life cycle of plastics - from sourcing of raw materials to manufacturing, to use and recycling - to create solutions for waste from numerous plastic product groups in modern society from aerospace components to children's toys.
This EPRSC-funded programme aims to create a technical, socio-economic and policy roadmap for how the UK can prevent waste plastics from entering the environment. We firmly believe that an integrated, multi-pronged approach is the only feasible way to bring about real change in plastic and consumer behaviour.
We propose to tackle the challenges associated with plastic waste along two general thrusts:
Resource preservation: Minimising virgin material extraction
This thread focusses on the design, manufacturing and recycling challenges associated with plastics. It is clear that single-use plastic materials derived from fossil resources are unsustainable and undesirable. In order to phase these materials out of the plastic economy, we must fully develop new technological solutions to create replacement materials that both consumers and manufacturers will use.
These will include developing new technologies that utilise cleaner and more recyclable plastic alternatives, new recycling and recovery processes, better design of end products and the development of guidelines to design for biodegradability. We will couple this with new product designs aimed to encourage treating reuse and recycling as a "badge of honour" rather than a burden.
Waste prevention: Making fewer resources flow continuously
This thread focusses on re-thinking the end-of-life of plastic materials, and how we can use technology, policy, and understanding of social behaviours to increase recycling rates and maximize the length of time plastic remains in the live economy. This will require overcoming a set of sociotechnical challenges associated with product design, consumer behaviour and waste material collection and treatment.
We will study how to bring about more acceptance of recycled materials and promotion of the circular economy within the general public. This will be a consumer-focussed and policy-oriented approach to rethinking how we interact with plastics as a society. Policy and behaviour changes will be linked to the design of the new materials to ensure a whole product that is both technically robust, harmless, and easy to re-use.