Plastics: Redefining Single Use

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Professor Tony Ryan at the University of Sheffield, talks about the plastic waste crisis and the 'Plastics - Redefining Single Use' project, which will look at single-use plastics in food and fast-moving consumer goods packaging, as well as their plastic ingredients and medical products.

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.

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 Tony Ryan - Director, Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures

We've become addicted to convenience and that's the nub of the problem. And these fantastic materials, plastics that have been developed, have been taken on by everybody. And we have started to throw them away without any regard. So there is seven billion tonnes of plastic on the Earth and 10 million tonnes of it leaks into the sea every year. We have to change the way we make packaging, we have to change the way we use plastic and we have to change the whole business model.

We need to look at the complete system, the artefact, the whole supply chain, what the consumer does. And all those things together need more than science and technology. So in this project we have brought together 30 academics from the University of Sheffield, going all the way from the School of Language and Linguistics, through sociology, engineering and even medical research.

In order to bring new approaches to plastic waste, we need to understand how and why we have come to use plastic in the way we have. One example would be how have products and packaging evolved together?

So crisps, what we now know as a snack food, they didn't exist 20 years ago in the same form. They needed special packaging and that packaging is a plastic film that's coated with a metal. So the crisps stay crisp and will last a long, long time - a shelf life of over a year. The dilemma we have is in understanding the difference between using durable materials over and over and over, or using degradable materials once. They polymer chemistry that works, the durable polymer chemistry, is really well established and we could develop a circular economy for that using its durability quite easily. Degradable materials, we still don't quite know their fate. But our friends in sociology and psychology tell us that, actually that chemistry might not be the right chemistry to do, because it gives permission to throw away. So we are going to look at the durable track and work out with all sorts of stakeholders from industry, manufacturers, from consumers, which is the most appropriate way to go.