The planet needs a plastics revolution

New cutting-edge research can transform the plastics industry

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We have become addicted to plastic. Approximately 300 million tonnes of plastic waste is generated each year. Microplastics have been found in every location surveyed worldwide, even inside human tissue. In developing countries, up to one million people die as a result of mismanaged plastic waste each year.

And plastic has another, less visible, environmental impact — climate change. Seventeen million barrels of oil are used for plastic production each year. With the anticipated growth in the plastics sector, by 2050 production and disposal will be responsible for up to 13 per cent of the world’s total “carbon budget” of greenhouse gas emissions. That is equivalent to 615 coal-fired power plants, warns the Center for International Environmental Law.

We need radical action to halt this trend and limit the damaging consequences of plastic pollution on our health and the environment.

That is why the University of Portsmouth is assembling teams of scientists, business-leaders, campaigners and citizens to lead a revolution in the manufacture, use and disposability of this convenient but polluting material.

The initiative, called Revolution Plastics, sets out to create a new plastics economy based on improved recyclability, policy support from all tiers of government, and community engagement to achieve behavioural change in the use of plastics.

Professor Steve Fletcher, who is director of the University of Portsmouth’s sustainability and the environment research theme and an adviser to the United Nations on ocean resources, says the Revolution Plastics initiative seeks to achieve a transition away from polluting practices to a future in which sustainable plastics manufacturing and consumption is the norm.

“Transitioning to a sustainable plastics future creates an opportunity to engage with multiple disciplines – biology, psychology, marine sciences, geosciences, fashion, food and urban design – and industry and community sectors, at different scales and intensities,” he says.

This ambition is consistent with global initiatives, such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Climate Agreement, principles of the circular economy, and living within the planet’s safe operating space, as championed by the UN International Resource Panel and World Economic Forum.

Revolution Plastics builds on the momentum created by the University’s globally acclaimed engineering of an enzyme that can digest some of the most commonly polluting plastics, such as plastic bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET). This is a plastic which would otherwise persist for hundreds of years in the environment.

Our scientists have worked with the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory to engineer a novel “enzyme cocktail” that can quickly break down plastic to its polymer building blocks. This allows plastics to be made and reused endlessly, with real potential to revolutionise industrial recycling of plastics and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

The ongoing research is supported by the University’s Centre for Enzyme Innovation (CEI), which, in partnership with industry, will have the capacity to take on the global plastics challenge.

Professor John McGeehan, director of CEI, says, “we can all play a significant part in dealing with this problem, but the scientific community which created these ‘wonder materials’, must now use all the technology at its disposal to develop real solutions”.

The university has been awarded £5.8m through the UK government’s Research England Expanding Excellence Fund. Coupled with significant investment by the university itself and the Solent Local Enterprise Partnership, hopes are high for finding a solution to one of the world’s greatest environmental challenges. 

We are also leading by example, showing what is possible through our procurement, use and disposal of resources (materials, water, energy and services). This will work hand in glove with the formation of community and industry partnerships to transform the city of Portsmouth into a global civic leader in sustainability transition: a community-supported “sustainability hub” that will accumulate knowledge, experience and data to become a global model.

Professor Fletcher believes if the Portsmouth community can revolutionise the use and end-use of plastics as part of a larger sustainability platform, then any community in the world can. “We see this as a pilot programme for the planet … an incubator for similar programmes in other cities and countries,” he says.

It is this momentum that makes the city’s civic administration confident that significant changes will happen and that the council has a central role. Councillor Dave Ashmore, cabinet member for environment and climate change, says that addressing environmental concerns is a top priority and, like many other municipalities around the world, the city of Portsmouth has declared a climate emergency.

“It is by working with the university that we actually believe we can turn the challenges we face into opportunities… investigate ways to move into renewable fuels, alternative materials, new industries and new jobs”, he explains.

There is also rising environmental awareness through local organisations and groups advocating sustainability and plastic waste reduction. This is the community foundation the university intends to support and build upon. In partnership with the Environment Agency, it will provide advice and resources to local groups, such as guidance on behaviour change methods.

World leading research and practice does not happen in isolation. For this reason, the University of Portsmouth is looking for more partners in business, government, the not-for-profit sector and academia around the world, to work together to tackle the plastics crisis.

This article was based on a report by Brad Collis and updated by Caroline Meech.

Join the revolution at www.port.ac.uk/revolution-plastics

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