Policy and academic leaders debate the future of plastics


Attendees at The Forum's plastics workshop

Solving one of the great environmental challenges - that of plastic waste and pollution - took centre stage at The Forum’s latest policy workshop.

Jointly organised by The Forum with the Greener Plastic Future project and the Ocean Plastic Solutions Network at Imperial, researchers from across the College led discussions with partners from government and the third sector to address one of the foremost problems facing societies across the world.

Led by Dr Arturo Castillo Castillo, Research Fellow at the Centre for Environmental Policy and Chair of the Ocean Plastics Solutions Network, the workshop was an opportunity to examine the changing research and policy landscapes and discuss potential collaborations and interventions to help bring fundamental science closer to deployment.

Jason Hallett at The Forum workshop
Professor Jason Hallett, who leads the Greener Plastic Future project, introduced the policy makers to Imperial

Professor Jason Hallett, who leads the project, introduced the workshop, explaining how it is creating a technical, socio-economic and policy roadmap for how the UK can prevent waste plastics from entering the environment.

Solving the problems collaboratively

Dr Castillo Castillo outlined the project’s interdisciplinary nature, working across six Imperial departments from Design Engineering to Chemistry. “Without working across disciplines, we have no way of solving the problems,” he told the audience from government departments and think tanks.

Arturo Castillo Castillo at The Forum workshop
Dr Arturo Castillo Castillo, Chair of the Ocean Plastic Solutions Network, facilitated discussions

The project’s postdoctoral researchers then took centre stage, with each describing the problems they are addressing, the potential benefits of their research and outlining specific policy gaps.

“Without working across disciplines, we have no way of solving the problems” Dr Arturo Castillo Castillo Lead, Ocean Plastic Solutions Network

Dr Zaneta Muranko from the Dyson School of Design Engineering looked at approaches to eliminate plastic waste in the fast-moving consumer goods sector, including how we can combine design engineering and behaviour alanalysis for good, circular product-service system design.

Dr Zaneta Muranko from the Dyson School of Design Engineering
Dr Zaneta Muranko from the Dyson School of Design Engineering 

From the Department of Chemistry, Dr Panagiotis Bexis spoke about sustainable polymer synthesis and recycling. Specifically, he explained the team’s work on creating new methodologies for more efficient polymer compatibilisation, inexpensive chemical recycling and the development of bio-sourced and recyclable high-performance materials.

Dr James Hogg from the Department of Chemical Engineering then expanded on the research on novel chemical recycling of plastics, explaining the process and its potential benefits when compared to conventional chemical recycling. He highlighted the need for more support for further development of novel chemical recycling.

From the Department of Materials, Dr Maria Mediero explained research looking at the potential health impacts of micro plastics, including measuring the potential damage caused by different sized particles as well as their type (durable or biodegradable). She expressed the need for calls for evidence on whether and which microplastics cause cellular damage.

Dr Maria Mediero from the Department of Materials
Dr Maria Mediero from the Department of Materials spoke about the potential toxicity of microplastics in the air

Dr Castillo Castillo presented on behalf of Dr Wenzhe Song from the Department of Aeronautics, on upcycling residual waste plastic, and Dr Manu Mulakkal from the Department of Mechanical Engineering on the problem of multi-layer packaging materials and his team’s aims of improving their recyclability.

Breaking down barriers for better policies 

After the presentations, the academics and policy makers were split into small groups to discuss the barriers to better policies, what proposals could be taken forward in the future and how collaborations could develop from the workshop.

Topics covered included the lack of systemic evidence in policy, the challenges of the taxation system and ways for consumers to be more informed and empowered. The government’s plans to end UK carbon emissions by 2050, which was announced at Imperial last year, was a key part of the discussion.

Attendees included policy makers from across government departments and bodies, including the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for International Development, and the Environment Agency. They were joined by representatives from industry, the think tanks Green Alliance and the Institute for European Environmental Policy, and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

Read more about plastics research at Imperial.

The Forum: Connecting our researchers with policymakers

Attendees talk at workshop
The workshop was attended by policy makers from a number of government departments

The Forum is Imperial College London’s policy engagement programme, connecting Imperial researchers with policy makers to discover new thinking on global challenges. This workshop was part of The Forum’s sustainability series. Please get in touch if you would like more information: the.forum@imperial.ac.uk.


George Hope

George Hope
Office of the President

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