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University lands £1.1m award to investigate plastics waste

Scientists at the University of Hull are developing and testing a new biodegradable plastic as part of a £1.1m project investigating plastics in the economy and environment.

The award is one of eight new research projects worth £8m that will explore new and different ways of making, using and recycling plastics announced today by the Science Minister, Chris Skidmore.

They are among the first to be funded through the Plastics Research Innovation Fund (PRIF).

The fund, managed by UK Research and Innovation, is engaging Britain’s best scientists and innovators to help move the country towards more circular economic and sustainable approaches to plastics.

It is delivered via the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and Innovate UK.

The award will see a team of over 25 academics from the University of Hull work with a wide range of companies and other organisations to investigate how these new plastics, along with new ways of recovering and recycling plastics, can be adopted. 

The project will use staff and students at the University as a test-bed for public attitudes to new plastics and will consider the potential social and environmental impacts of the material.

The research will include a significant number of non-academic organisations, including business, supermarkets, local government and recycling companies.

Along with University experts, they will be contributing to a new understanding of how the plastics circular economy works today, and helping explore new ideas and solutions.

The University of Hull’s Plastics Collaboratory is one of the largest interdisciplinary research groups in the UK focusing on plastics research, combining a range of expertise including politics, chemistry, geography, logistics, environmental sciences, psychology, systems thinking, law, economics and engineering.

"Current levels of reliance on the use of plastics makes this a significant challenge both in terms of needing specific breakthroughs in materials and chemical engineering, alongside the need to change behaviours necessary to move beyond single use fossil derived disposable plastics." Professor Carl Redshaw, University of Hull

Professor Carl Redshaw, who is co-leading the project, is an expert in chemistry and catalyst design for biodegradable polymers, will work on developing a new range of biodegradable plastics.

He said: “The scale of plastic waste in the environment and the resilience of the fossil-derived polymers used for its creation are unsustainable. Current levels of reliance on the use of plastics makes this a significant challenge both in terms of needing specific breakthroughs in materials and chemical engineering, alongside the need to change behaviours necessary to move beyond single use fossil derived disposable plastics. It takes 400 years for a plastic bag to degrade in a UK landfill.

“What we need to do is to find something which degrades much quicker into biological products, but has the kind of properties currently available in traditional plastics.

“Once we have created these bio-derived polymers, they can be scaled up to create new plastics which, once adopted at scale, can significantly contribute to reducing the entry of persistent plastics to the environment. Achieving this at a cost suitable for introduction on a mass market scale is no small challenge, but is only possible once the initial material development work is started.”

As part of the project, chemical engineers from the University will also look at the development of a commercially viable reprocessing methods for depolymerisation and regeneration of useful chemicals derived from post use plastic waste, which can be used in new consumer plastics.

Dr Pauline Deutz, a leading researcher in the circular economy, and co-lead of the project, said: “Plastic has changed the way we live. It has become an essential part of the global economy to such an extent, that there is now a crisis of control. We need new ways of thinking about the problems of plastic use.  The circular economy, which emphasises design for environmental protection and minimisation of waste, offers some important approaches.

“Recycling is no longer enough. We need a holistic approach to materials design and their degradability, and the human behavioural issues at the heart of the challenge.

“We need to work out how we can be more efficient in using resources. Plastic as a material has fallen behind the recycling recovery rates of other materials. Some plastics are easier to recycle than others, but the problem is, they are all intermingled.

“Part of our goal is to be able to resolve this key problem in consumer recycling – that of having to distinguish and separate different types of plastics, including recyclable, non-recyclable, biodegradable and compostable. The aim is to test and develop a process that can make use of these in mixed form, then the collection and processing of post-consumer waste can be greatly simplified.”

Professor Daniel Parsons, who leads the cross-University Plastics Collaboratory as Director of the Energy and Environment Institute, added “The University has a very strong track record of impactful research that makes a difference. By bringing together broad expertise from right across the campus, along with the strong external partnerships with industry and wider stakeholders, we are looking forward to being at the forefront of tackling the mounting global issue centred on plastics.”

The project will also see academics working with policy makers with the aim of helping change what types of plastics are available to consumers.

Visit the University’s Plastics Collaboratory website for further details.

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