Smart Sustainable Plastic Packaging from Plants (S2UPPlant)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: Materials Science & Metallurgy

Abstract

In recent times, our enthusiasm for "disposable" plastics culture has been replaced by a more environmentally and carbon-conscious ethos that has created a strong desire amongst consumers and producers for greater use of recyclable or biodegradable materials. Whilst there are already some examples of such plastics in use (e.g. shrink wrapping for magazines or BioWare plates and cutlery) their relatively low volumes of usage, slow breakdown rates in the natural environment and widespread confusion with conventional plastics mean that this little more than a token effort at present. Similarly, while reducing single-use or unnecessary plastic packaging is very important, some packaging is still required to maintain food quality, shelf-life and international distribution networks. With this project, we plan to supplant the widespread use of fossil-derived plastics with materials made from naturally derived sources, such as wood (cellulose) and plants (sugars). These materials will degrade more easily in the natural environment, and result in no additional carbon being returned to the biosphere. By changing the genetic code of the plants, or blending with other additives from food or agricultural waste, we can engineer materials with new functional properties, such as improved strength or better protection, resulting in a reduction in overall volume of plastic packing used to keep food fresh. We will also ensure that these new plastics are compatible with existing recycling infrastructure to enable maximum reuse before degradation.
Of course, changing wholesale from fossil-derived to plant-derived feedstocks will entail major changes to our economic and environmental processes. At present, many sources of natural feedstocks are in direct competition with food resources and are unprofitable to produce at large scales compared with feedstocks for conventional plastics. By assessing the impact of switching to plant-derived sugars and making better use of waste products from food and forestry industries, we will explore the trade-offs between the benefits of plastic packaging and the impacts of its production and disposal, both for existing plastics and new natural feedstock alternatives. Success of the project will result in fulfilment of many of the UK Plastic Pact 2025 challenges and help to achieve the objective of establishing the UK as a leading innovator in smart and sustainable plastic packaging.

Publications

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