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)
Christopher Anthony Holland (Co-Investigator)
Philip Warren (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
Lorraine Maltby (Co-Investigator)
Peter Jackson (Co-Investigator) orcid
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)
Chantelle Wood (Co-Investigator) orcid
Thomas Llewelyn Webb (Co-Investigator) orcid
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)


10 25 50
Description We have held 3 stakeholder events. We were able to have our initial tranche of 4 PDRAs in post in time for our 1st stakeholder event in January. This allowed us to engage with colleagues along the supply chain, from government and the 3rd sector (e.g. M&S, Unilever, Nomad Food, Our Cow Molly, Co-op, Dow, KTN, WRAP, DEFRA, BEIS, HM Treasury) to help define the initial work of our Competence and Capability Teams (CCTs). A second stakeholder meeting was held in March (with additional organisations such as the Environment Agency, RPC and RPC Bepo represented) with a number of external speakers to undertake the process of scoping out the PCS. The second tranche of 3 PDRAs were then in post for our 3rd stakeholder engagement (with additional organisations including RPC BPI, Unpackaged, BBC Inside Out, Wastebuster and Innovate UK represented) which defined the work that the PCS would undertake. The progress made by the individual CCTs and PCSs is detailed in their reports. In the short term, we are working on recycling & design plastic packaging with a range of stakeholders. We have done the R&D for, and implemented, a new business model for milk delivery to the service sector using the University as a pilot study and secured external funding for research with industry and an educational charity. Finally we have started extensive engagement with policy makers and responded to 6 consultations. In the medium term, we have the PCSs working with stakeholders on reuse and refill business models, collection, cleaning and recycling of agricultural plastics, and reduction of single use plastics in dental surgeries. We are preparing a proposal for a UKRI Circular Economy Research Centre based on our expertise in the plastic and food area - two areas that are inextricably linked. The long-term goal of this is a food-plastics system that converts agricultural waste into bio-plastics (once we have renewable energy to spare) and even investigates a return to a lengthened linear plastics economy as burying bioplastic is easier than burying CO2. We were approached by 'Inside Out', a BBC North TV programme, to make a 10 minute documentary which was broadcast in September leading to 4 further opportunities. The initial outcome was around 100 emails from dentists wanting to know how they could reduce single use plastics from their practice, and we will be arranging a CPD course in this area. The publicity also led to a number of other medical practitioners getting in touch and we are now working with a group of surgeons in addition to a cardiologist on hospital theatre practices. At a strategic level we have also been invited to give plastics sustainability advice to the NHSs Chief Dental Officer and the FDI World Dental Federation based in Geneva. The success of the programming has also led to a BBC National News arranging to film another 10 minute documentary about our work on repurposing polyurethane mattresses and PVC drainage pipes to make hydroponic gardens for Syrian refugees in Jordan and urban farms to tackle hidden food poverty in the UK. We actively promote and share our plastics research activities on social media. In September, our local newspaper The Star featured our project in their special edition for the Covering Climate Now movement. The GCSF's tweet with the link to the article earned over 11k impressions. Recently, our communications officer interviewed PDRA Rukayya Muazu about her LCA work. So far, the related tweet got 6.5k tweets. As a result, we have been contacted by the World Health Organisation to collaborate on future projects. We have also developed new understanding to inform legislation and incentivise behaviour change and contributed to the following policy consultations. 1. Single-use carrier bags: extending and increasing the charge (DEFRA) The submission information is not yet available for this consultation 2. Plastic Packaging Tax (HM Treasury) Total of 400 submissions - only UoS and QUB responded from the HE sector. 3. Packaging waste: changing the UK producer responsibility system for packaging waste (DEFRA) Total of 679 submissions - only UoS and Cardiff responded from the HE sector. 4. Introducing a Deposit Return Scheme in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (DEFRA) Total of 1180 including 10 HEIs and UoS. 5. Consistency in Household and Business Recycling Collections in England (DEFRA) Total of 1713 responses including 6 HEIs and UoS. 6. Standards for Bio-based, Biodegradable, and Compostable Plastics (BEIS) Response submitted on 14th October 2019 Our Packaging Technology Expert Sarah Greenwood responded to and was invited to give evidence in Parliament to the EFRA inquiry about food packaging. We have had face-to-face meetings with Treasury, DEFRA and BEIS to provide detailed technical advice on a wide range of plastics policy issues. Prior to the beginning of the PRIF projects, we volunteered to organise the 'Creative Circular Economy Approaches to Eliminate Plastics Waste' Conference in June 2020. We set up, and lead, an administrators group for all PRIF projects to share examples of good practice. The conference will bring together PRIF researchers and other interested parties from academia, industry and government to discuss innovations and advances in the circular economy for plastics. It will be a discussion meeting and following the meeting authors will have the chance to edit their multidisciplinary summary papers as they see fit. The final papers will then be published along with
First Year Of Impact 2020
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology,Retail
Impact Types Societal,Policy & public services

Description EFRA inquiry about food packaging
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Gave evidence to a government review
Description Dow Impact Fund
Amount £71,824 (GBP)
Organisation Dow Chemical Company (DOW) 
Sector Private
Country United States
Start 11/2019 
End 10/2020
Description Knowledge Exchange
Amount £20,279 (GBP)
Organisation Higher Education Innovation Funding (HEIF) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2019 
End 02/2020
Description DOW partnership 
Organisation Dow Chemical Company (DOW)
Country United States 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution The Extended Plastic Partnership for Innovation in Circularity (EPPIC) project
Collaborator Contribution The Extended Plastic Partnership for Innovation in Circularity (EPPIC) project
Impact None so far
Start Year 2019
Description Our Cow Molly milk churns 
Organisation Our Cow Molly Dairy Ice Cream
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution We are working with local dairy farm Our Cow Molly, the University's milk supplier, on the project 'Removing plastic bottles from the milk supply chain: A UoS/Our Cow Molly Case Study'.
Collaborator Contribution We are working with local dairy farm Our Cow Molly, the University's milk supplier, on the project 'Removing plastic bottles from the milk supply chain: A UoS/Our Cow Molly Case Study'.
Impact None so far.
Start Year 2019
Description BBC Inside Out films episode 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact BBC Inside Out films episode on medical plastic in dental surgeries
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description BBC Radio interview 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Radio programme: The plastics in the ocean
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Plastic seminar for the Crosspool WI 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Plastic seminar for the Crosspool WI
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Plenary lecture at the Societa Chimica Italiana 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Tony Ryan gave a plenary lecture at the Societa Chimica Italiana
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Presentation and Marks & Spencer CPD event 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Presentation and Marks & Spencer CPD event
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Presentation at Association of Paediatric Anaesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Anthony Ryan speaks at Association of Paediatric Anaesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Presentation at Pint of Science 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Presentation at Pint of Science
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019