Enabling a greener plastic future through molecular science

Topics: Plastic, sustainability, molecular science
Type: 
Briefing paper
Publication date: 
July 2020

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Summary

Authors: Arturo Castillo Castillo, Manu Mulakkal, Panagiotis Bexis, Kieran Brophy

Headlines

Issues

  • Plastic is a versatile, high-performance material that has become the preferred material for a wide range of applications.
  • Plastic production is expected to double in 20 years and almost quadruple by 2050, by which time the plastic industry will account for 20% of the world’s total oil consumption.
  • Plastic pollution is one of the main socio-environmental challenges that we face today. It is a multi-dimensional problem with several causes that involve not only plastics as materials but also the way they are made, commercialised, used, discarded and often mismanaged.
  • The way plastics are made is complex, and some of the substances used in their manufacture make them problematic and uneconomical to recycle.

Solution

  • Researchers at Imperial College London are researching how we can reduce the amount of plastic leaked into the environment. However we need:
  1. more research into how molecular science can improve recyclability;
  2. new policies, better commercial and civic practices, and increased public awareness of resource efficiency. Although there is no “silver bullet” to address the complex problem of plastic pollution, making plastic products more reusable and recycling friendly through novel material combinations, processing methods and overall design can make a significant contribution.
  • New technologies are being developed that can recover polymers and monomers (the building blocks that make up plastic) as a way to exclude impurities and improve recyclability in future.
  • It is worthwhile for stakeholders to rethink how we can manufacture plastics in future – helping to reduce toxicity and increasing the amount of material that can be recovered via recycling.

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