Imperial College London

Can molecular science create a greener plastic future?

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Plastic pollution is one of the main socio-environmental challenges that we face today.

Plastic pollution is one of the main socio-environmental challenges that we face today.

Researchers at Imperial College London are looking at new ways we can make plastic waste easier to recycle, biodegrade or reuse.

The problem with plastic

Plastic is a versatile, high-performance material that has become integral to the global economy. Indeed in Europe alone, the plastics sector employs 1.5 million people and generated a turnover of €360 billion in 2018.

However, plastic pollution is one of the main socio-environmental challenges that we face today. With one-third of all plastic produced ending up in the environment globally, and plastic production being expected to double in 20 years and almost quadruple by 2050, urgent action is required now.

How can we make plastics "greener"?

The way plastics are made is complex, and some of the substances used in their manufacture make them problematic and uneconomical to recycle.

The Institute for Molecular Science and Engineering has brought together world-leading experts from the Ocean Plastic Solutions Network at Imperial College London and the Greener Plastic Futures project to assess how we can make plastic waste easier to recycle, biodegrade or reuse.

Their findings were presented in a new briefing Paper launched online on July 8th, which outlined how we can reduce the amount of plastic leaked into the environment. Speaking at the launch were academics from Imperial College and representatives from the Port of London Authority and Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP).

You can watch the launch of the Briefing Paper here.

The percentage of waste packaging recycled, disposed of or lost to the environment globally.
The percentage of waste packaging recycled, disposed of or lost to the environment globally, a massive 32% of all plastic produced is leaked into the environment.



Lead author Dr Arturo Castillo Castillo, from the Centre for Environment Policy, explained how molecular science can improve both the manufacture and recycling of plastic. At the launch he highlighted the need for ongoing research at Imperial on:

  • improving the design and recycling of multi-layer plastics, commonly found in crisp packets and confectionary wrappers, which are difficult to recycle;
  • further development of technologies that can recover polymers and monomers - the building blocks that make up plastic - with less impurities, improving recyclability
  • nano-scale imaging and analysis techniques to study the potential impact of plastic and fibre particles in the human body;

No silver bullet 

In order to see less plastic being leaked into the environment, Dr Castillo Castillo highlights that it will require more than the right science and engineering.

Although there is no “silver bullet” to address the problem of plastic pollution, making plastic products more recycle friendly through new materials, processing methods and overall design can make a significant contribution. Dr Arturo Castillo Castillo Research Fellow, Centre for Environmental Policy

A key conclusion of the Briefing Paper is the need for new policies, better commercial and civic practices, and increased public awareness of resource efficiency.

According to Dr Castillo Castillo, simple steps such as coherent guidelines on what can actually be recycled, along with increased public participation and better recycling infrastructure can go a long way.

Dr Arturo Castillo is a Research Fellow at Faculty of Natural Sciences, Centre for Environmental Policy Imperial College London. He is also the Leader of the Ocean Plastic Solutions Network.

Dr Manu Mulakkal is a Research associate in the faculty of engineering, department of mechanical engineering at Imperial College London.

Dr Panagiotis Bexis is a Research associate in the faculty of Natural sciences, department of chemistry.

Ms Tanya Ferry is the Head of Environment for the Port of London Authority in the Planning and Environment Department. Tanya works within environmental management with a particular focus on the water environment.

Mr Patrick Mahon is the Strategic Assistant to the Chief Executive atWaste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP). He is responsible for WRAP’s Policy and Government Affairs portfolio, engaging with external policy and political audiences, and providing strategic advice on policy issues to internal colleagues.

About the Institute for Molecular Science and Engineering

The Institute for Molecular Science and Engineering (IMSE) is one of Imperial College London's Global Institutes, drawing on the strength of its four faculties to address some of the grand challenges facing the world today. The Institute's activities are focused on tackling problems where molecular innovation plays an important role.

About Greener Plastic Future

The EPRSC-funded project Holistic Integration of Technology, Design and Policy for a Greener Plastic Future (GPF) aims to create a technical, socio-economic and policy roadmap for how the UK can prevent waste plastics from entering the environment. It is based on an integrated, multi-pronged approach to bring about real change in plastic production, consumption and recovery.

Reporter

Dr Kieran Brophy

Dr Kieran Brophy
Faculty of Engineering

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Contact details

Tel: +44 (0)20 7594 2572
Email: kieran.brophy13@imperial.ac.uk

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