I’m feeling rather of a villain of late, something an Innovation Lead at Innovate UK might not usually want to reveal.
Why? Because for over 30 years I’ve been involved in innovation with polymers and I wholeheartedly value them; yet on the other hand when I mention I’m involved with plastics for a living, I sometimes get a look along the lines of ‘you killed a baby whale…..’.
Plastic. A valuable and versatile material
I’m regularly having to defend a valuable versatile material, when it’s often what we do (or don’t do) with plastics at end of life that’s the issue. If every gram of plastic packaging we manufactured were collected and reused or burnt at end of life, and none was left in our verges or made it to the oceans, I would not be writing this blog.
Science has always fascinated me, and during my degree a final year lecture piqued my curiosity of polymers. Since then I’ve undertaken work on polymer modification and degradation mechanisms for my PhD, worked with natural rubber for the Malaysian government and developed polymer formulations for the medical industry. Most recently I’ve been supporting the UK polymer community as Polymer Lead for the KTN and currently as an Innovation Lead in the Advanced Materials team at Innovate UK.
So I’m putting my (plastic coated) cards on the table, and admitting I think polymers and plastics are fantastic; I’ve chosen to spend my whole career with them after all.
Safer, healthier, happier lives
Polymers enable us to live safer, healthier, happier and more connected lives. I certainly wouldn’t want to undergo medical treatment without flexible tubing, drive my car without tyres, give up my vinyls or CD’s, or go back to life without lightweight portable electronics - and those examples are just a handful of uses for polymers.
Last but not least if I asked you to remove all the polymer clothing from your body, and you were in public, would you?
Polymers can solve problems
Innovate UK has funded hundreds of polymer projects, over £55 million worth in the last seven years. These have included developing smart sorting processes for recycling packaging, developing products to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, flexible electronics, and novel polymers as repair mechanisms to increase the lifetime of infrastructures.
We’ve funded them because polymers can solve problems.
It’s the discarding of plastic that’s bad, not the material
But plastics are the current pariah of the materials world. We see them discarded in our environment and they harm our planet and its inhabitants because of the longevity of the material. However the material itself is used to reduce overall harm to the environment.
Plastic is lightweight and strong so we can use it in place of heavier materials. Without it we would be burning significantly more fossil fuels in transport, wasting value food resource from spoiling, and using more energy in food production. It’s the discarding of plastic that’s bad, not the material.
The majority of plastics we see discarded are from the packaging used to protect and market the foods and goods we consume, in fact 40% of all the plastic we process becomes packaging which is often single use. In the UK the average household disposes of 40kg of plastic packaging a year, and there is also commercial packaging to protect goods before they reach the store.
A constant drive exists to reduce packaging
Industry is already looking for ways to reduce the amount of plastics they and we use. Producers of goods do not want to spend any more than necessary protecting their goods as it makes them less profitable, so there is a constant drive for innovative design that brings down packaging weights.
The challenge lies in the complexity and amount of products that we consume. Despite the reductions in container weight (a washing up bottle now weighs around 40% less than it did in 1960) we are using so much more plastics than ever before. Our lifestyles have changed, we are all on the go, we want convenience and we like the amount of choices we have, it’s what marketing relies upon.
In the UK we are the highest consumers of processed food within the EU (more than 50% of our intake is processed) and processed food is, by nature, packaged; our lifestyle choices have increased the total volume of plastic packaging in the waste stream.
We need innovation to simplify plastic waste and improve recycling
The good news is that the plastic packaging we use can, in many cases, be recycled - the standard plastic milk bottle uses around 25% recycled content already for example. Technically there are solutions for all polymers to be recycled, but the practicality and economics of recycling all plastic packaging makes for a different story.
With the complexity of packaging types; pots, tubs, trays, bottles, packets, pouches, lids and films (which are often a mix of materials and very lightweight) which we currently use, we need innovation to simplify plastic waste and improve recycling technologies. Innovate UK is working closely with government to address this and welcomes applications for such innovation through both its Open Programme and the Plastics Innovation Fund.
Ideas to mitigate the levels of persistent plastic
Some ideas to mitigate the levels of persistent plastic in the environment that might be funded through our research funding could be those covering:
- Innovative materials - e.g. developing compatibilizers to increase the levels of recycled polymer in the waste stream, edible packaging or biodegradable/compostable packaging
- Recycling more efficiently - e.g. more specific and effective sorting mechanisms for polymer packaging types or processes to make cleaner recyclate that can be used in higher value applications
- Product design - packaging that consists of a single polymer but has multi-functional packaging properties, reusable packaging or packaging made of easily recyclable polymer material
- Behavioural - innovative processes to encourage consumers to recycle or reuse packaging such as refillable takeaway box schemes or my personal favourite Gumdrop which is a closed loop process for recycling used chewing gum
I don’t think of plastic as waste but as a valuable resource. They say that oil is liquid gold and that plastic is solid oil, so for me that makes plastic solid gold!
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