EPSRC - Designing Out Plastic Waste - UCL

Supplementary content information

Professor Mark Miodownik at UCL, talks about the plastic waste crisis and the UCL Designing-out Plastic Waste project, which aims to look at new and innovative methods to recycle plastics.

The project is funded via the £20 million Plastics Research and Innovation Fund, managed by UK Research and Innovation, the Fund is engaging Britain’s best scientists and innovators to help move the country towards more circular economic and sustainable approaches to plastics.

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Professor Mark Miodownik – Materials and Society, University College London (MM)

We’ve got a crisis about plastic waste.  There is more plastic going in the ocean than seems feasible in a way.  If we carry on the way we are going, there will be more plastic waste in the ocean than fish by 2050.

At the moment, we make stuff and a lot of it involves plastic or plastic packaging.  It’s not economical to really recycle a lot of that stuff so it ends up in a waste dump, or it gets burnt, or it ends up worse than that, in the sea or the environment.  What we need to do is change all that.  We need to make sure that everything we make, we know how to recycle it.  And not just that, that it makes economic sense to do it.  And that is the big challenge for the new plastics economy. 

Professor Helen Hailes - Chemical Biology, University College London (HH)

No individual is going to be able to have all the skills to be able to solve these problems and I think the real value of the project that we have here at UCL, is that we are looking at the problem from lots of different points of views. 

Dr Teresa Domenech – Institute for Sustainable Resources, University College London

Collaboration is really, really important because we need to understand the complexity of plastics, we need to understand why plastics are in the ocean and we need to understand what is the behaviour behind that and why we use plastics the way we do.

(MM)

So our project has three different themes.  One is to look at the current linear system of plastics to see where in that whole loop we lose the plastic.  And not just lose the plastic, but lose the value of the plastic.  So you might think of the packaging around your tomatoes and you might think well, do I need all that?  But it is playing a very important role to keep those tomatoes fresh and it reduces food waste a lot and it increases value.  But in a circular economy, that packaging would go back into the system and become packaging again, so no waste. 

A second theme is that we recognise that some plastics are not going to be recyclable easily in the current system, so we need to find new systems for recycling them.  And one of the ones we are looking into is this new idea that bacteria might be used to recycle plastics.  So what we want to do is find the bacteria that eat plastic, control them in a controlled environment and see if we can get the hard and difficult to recycle plastics and recycle them with bacteria. 

(HH)

And also using bacteria, the enzymes in bacteria, to be able to convert biomass-related materials, so cheap, readily available starting materials, into building blocks for new plastics. 

(MM)

And the third bit of our project is that we recognise that the public have a huge role to play in this.  We need the public to mobilise and get behind this.  So we are going to do a citizens science project around understanding what plastic ends up in the environment, what plastic ends up in the sea, and we are going to get all the public to collect this data for us and we will then map it throughout the whole country.  And that way, we will really get the public on board with reducing that amount and that to me is a really important part of this.