https://innovateuk.blog.gov.uk/2019/02/12/the-plastics-age/

The plastics age

It’s been over 160 years since Alexander Parkes created what many people regard to be the first thermoplastic, Parkesine, in Birmingham (that’s right – plastic is a UK innovation).

Though Parkes himself never really achieved commercial success with his wonder material (Innovate UK didn’t exist back then of course), he laid the groundwork for those that came after him, who did.

Four different carrier bags holding various vegetables

Plastics are part of modern life

Plastics are now an intrinsic part of our modern industrial society; they play a key role in our food system, our transport system, construction, electronics and healthcare.

We live in the plastic age. But, as we are all increasingly aware, the same properties which have made plastic so ubiquitous have resulted in a challenge that affects us all.

We’re only just beginning to understand the full impact that plastic pollution has on our environment and are increasingly supporting innovation to deliver a more circular economy for plastics.

Plastic bags contaminating the water

Plastics Research and Innovation Fund (PRIF)

In 2018 the government created the PRIF, a £20million investment aimed at solving the challenge of making our use of plastic more circular. Most of this investment has taken the form of direct funding for academic research and business-led innovation projects, but I don’t think we’ll solve the problems of plastics without a collective effort.

We can create new, more sustainable plastics. We can research and understand how plastics behave in the environment and the impacts they cause. We can experiment to develop new methods of distributing food which are based on reusable packaging.

Hands holding up glass bottles, paper bags, tin cans, light bulb and a plastic bottle

But if we don’t address the big picture, if we don’t change the whole plastic system, we ultimately won’t solve the problem. So, one of the key elements of our work in plastics is to facilitate co-ordination, networking and – perhaps most importantly – understanding.

Addressing the challenge

One way we’re supporting co-ordination and networking is by working with our partner organisation, the Knowledge Transfer Network, to create the UK Circular Plastics Network (UKCPN).

The UKCPN exists to bring together all the companies, brands, people, organisations and others that will be needed to address the plastics challenge:

  • To start the conversations that will lead to the ideas that can then be nurtured into innovations.
  • To drive the collaborations and partnerships that will see us change the plastics system and deliver clean, sustainable growth.

We’re also actively supporting exploration and dialogue aimed at increasing our understanding of the problems, and developing strategies to address them.

We recently sponsored an investigation into plastic packaging (the biggest use of plastic in the UK) by Policy Connect. The outcome of this research is the publication of their latest report, Plastic Packaging Plan: Achieving zero ‘waste’ exports.

A person holding a paper sack with a recycling image on the front containing recycling

Developing independent ideas

Innovate UK and NERC jointly funded this research to help develop independent ideas on how the government, researchers and business can work together to change our relationship to plastic packaging waste.

The report was informed by bringing together experts in research, innovation, politics and industry. It brought together the strong, often different and always passionate views across industry and society about plastics - then came up with some ideas and recommendations on how to move forward.

Here at UKRI the work of the Plastics Research and Innovation Fund (PRIF), the UKCPN and supporting independent initiatives like the Policy Connect investigation are just the beginning of our focus on this area.

We recently announced that we’re working on a Smart Sustainable Plastic Packaging Challenge as part of the third wave of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. This would be a 5-year investment programme to drive plastics research and innovation, so just as plastic was created here all those years ago, circular plastic will also be a UK innovation.

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