Plastics: Redefining Single-Use

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: Chemistry


Single-use plastics are a pervasive societal and environmental problem and what we need to know is "when and how does a circular economy for plastic make good sense?". Sometimes single-use plastic sometimes is the only way to go, provided the waste is dealt with properly. Even burning (to recovery the energy) is not such a bad option, just a tiny fraction of global GHG emissions. It is, however, obvious that we should make the best use of our both our fossil and renewable resources and the move towards a zero-waste, circular economy for plastics is needed. This should not become an ideology though, it must be based on evidence, perhaps on a case by case basis. This project will provide the methodology to work it out.

Whilst the technological development of advanced materials has been phenomenal, the commodity plastics used today have remained largely unchanged for decades. This proposal concerns single-use plastics in food and fast-moving consumer goods packaging, as well as their plastic ingredients and medical products. We will consider the whole plastics system, and build a use-phase approach to the whole supply circle in plastic production, manufacture and use, looking at how regulation and design can influence practice at all stages, from polymer production, retail management to consumer behaviour. The polymers (plastics) used in these materials have different environmental fates and depending on their usage, will need to be either re-used, recycled, or recovered. These three R's are in descending levels of desirability, and would benefit from a minimum of reprocessing.

Four cross-disciplinary teams will address the circular plastic economy from a technological perspective to understand how societal behaviour adapts to increased environmental understanding, regulatory nudges, intervention, and new product development. We will:
1) Develop new routes to the economically sustainable production of polymer feedstocks. We shall also develop new routes to improved recycling of commodity polymers as well as lengthening product lifespan.
2) Develop environmental risk and lifecycle assessments (ERA and LCA) in tandem, to understand the balance between these two different analytical approaches. An LCA considers the inputs that make the product and the benefits that recycling may accrue whereas an ERA focuses on the effects of that product on the environment, particularly in the case of disposal.
3) Improve our understanding of how markets, technologies, and culture co-exist, and how they drive change. Cross-national boundaries are particularly revealing and comparison between rich economies and the global south, where packaging is the primary cause of sea pollution will be considered.
4) Identify how to enable behavioural, organisational and societal change. We will consider the role of incentives, but we will also look beyond these traditional approaches and consider aesthetic and environmental motivations for behaviour. For example, how effectively rich economies can employ nudge techniques.

As well as frontline research, proof of concept studies will be performed to bring together different factors to understand different problems. These will be used to assess and exemplify the differences in approach where the balance between the three R's changes. For example, if biodegradable products are produced, will the consumer simply drive the production of more single-use products, on the grounds that they are biodegradable and therefore how they are discarded doesn't matter?

At the end of the project a new community will be working together in teams that understand that, for example, a technological solution is not in and of itself enough. People must be persuaded to use it, and use it responsibly. Scientists and engineers will understand the broader picture, and social and environmental scientists will also understand the limits of what technology can achieve.

Planned Impact

The project will create a new way of working through direct relationships along the circular plastic economy chain. Internally, social scientists, environmental scientists, engineers, researchers from the arts and humanities and physical scientists will work together and develop a full understanding of the issues associated with moving toward a zero-waste economy. This new way of working will tackle the research silo problem, whereby academics do not look further than the immediate consequences of their own research. This will encourage them to look at the bigger picture in their future work, and the research ethos used here will spread to other disciplines and problems.

Furthermore, the benefits of the integrated approach will apply to external stakeholders in the circular plastic economy from plastics producers to those involved in recycling and waste. The list is not exhaustive, and one example from each of supply chain element includes Dow Chemical (plastics producer); Innovia films (plastics converter); Unilever (fast-moving consumer goods manufacturer); Marks and Spencers (retail); Veolia (recycling and waste); and WRAP (policy makers). These stakeholders are among our partners who have agreed to participate in a workshop at the beginning and end of the project to move the UK towards zero plastic waste. Stakeholders are also unused to this holistic approach, and it is anticipated that the way they approach environmental goals will be affected by this project.

The project will enable The University of Sheffield to become the world leader on the circular economy and zero plastic waste. The University aims to use the outcomes of this project to build the case to the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund to house a Perrin* Centre for Zero Plastic Waste, which will allow us to create landmark projects similar to the Faraday Battery Challenge. Naturally, other bids nationally and internationally are also anticipated.
(*Michael Perrin - ICI patent for industrial LDPE production in 1939)

The final project workshop will be held in London, close to Westminster, in order to ensure that civil servants and members of the two houses of parliament can easily attend. As well as direct stakeholders, policy makers will attend. Even after only 18 months, policy recommendations will be made using the data and results generated. (Examples might include recommendations concerning the number of plastics used, or adjunct devices involved in packaging, such as lids or dispensers). The vehicle for this impact will be an externally peer-reviewed citable white paper, which will detail recommendations from the project that will provide strategic agenda and an action plan.

The combination of the different partners and the media will allow us to promote an understanding of the complexity of the zero-waste goal so that a widespread understanding of how "solutions" can have deleterious effects is promoted. For example, organic bread does not require the fertilizer that contributes to the 46% of greenhouse gas emissions in the life cycle of mass produced bread. However, the greater land requirement and low yields involved in the production of organic bread means that the environmental consequences are actually greater. Ultimately, the public will have an understanding that "they can buy the product but rent the packaging," and that no amount of degradable packaging legitimises a throw-away culture.



Anthony John Ryan (Principal Investigator) orcid
Alexander Matthew Rothman (Co-Investigator)
Steven Mulligan (Co-Investigator) orcid
Tom Stafford (Co-Investigator)
Alan David Dunbar (Co-Investigator)
Matt Watson (Co-Investigator)
Siau Ching Lenny Koh (Co-Investigator)
Philip Warren (Co-Investigator)
Christopher Anthony Holland (Co-Investigator)
Jonathan Howse (Co-Investigator)
Paul Vincent Hatton (Co-Investigator)
John Patrick Fairclough (Co-Investigator) orcid
Richard David Wilkinson (Co-Investigator)
Agba Salman (Co-Investigator)
Richard Bruce (Co-Investigator)
Steven Armes (Co-Investigator)
Mark Geoghegan (Co-Investigator) orcid
Rachael Rothman (Co-Investigator) orcid
Peter Jackson (Co-Investigator) orcid
Lorraine Maltby (Co-Investigator)
James Wilsdon (Co-Investigator) orcid
Mark Daniel Ogden (Co-Investigator) orcid
Nicolas Martin (Co-Investigator)
Peter Styring (Co-Investigator)
Thomas J Webb (Co-Investigator)
Sebastian Guy Spain (Co-Investigator) orcid
Annette Fiona Taylor (Co-Investigator) orcid
Oleksandr Mykhaylyk (Co-Investigator)
Yajue Wu (Co-Investigator)
Thomas Llewelyn Webb (Co-Investigator) orcid
Chantelle Wood (Co-Investigator)
Joanna Gavins (Co-Investigator)
Christian Reynolds (Co-Investigator) orcid
Richard Jones (Co-Investigator)
David Evans (Co-Investigator)
Paul Martin (Co-Investigator)
Tuck Seng Wong (Co-Investigator)


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