Transcript for Plastics: Redefining Single-Use

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.