Reimagining our relationship with plastics

A new report, led by experts from the University of Birmingham, has delivered the UK Government a series of recommendations on finding solutions to the complex plastics problem.

Plastics are durable, lightweight and low-cost – and they have been a go-to material since commercialisation in the mid-20th Century. Without plastics, we would have poorer food safety standards, worse health and safety standards and no mobile phones.

Yet plastics are also contributing to many serious environmental crises, and we are only now scratching the surface in our understanding of the scale of the potential impacts and dangers of plastic on our environment and even our health.

The problem with plastics

Getting to grips with the plastics problem is far from easy. Are plastics themselves are the main problem? Or rather is the issue in how we design and use them?

A sustainable future for plastics requires nuanced insight into the wide-ranging use of plastic in our everyday lives and the breadth of positive and negative impacts associated with this.

That's why a Birmingham team, together with experts from different plastics sectors, have collaborated on a series of recommendations to prompt the UK Government in 'making the right decisions for the right reasons.'

Andrew Dove, Professor of Sustainable Polymer Chemistry, says: 'Our report shows that, while progress is being made, we need to build on this momentum and take advantage of the best examples set by other countries, as well as the research and innovation available across academia and industry.'

Key recommendations to Government to make plastics more sustainable in the UK

The report sets out core recommendations for creating a sustainable future for plastics that enhances the positive contributions they make to our social, economic and environmental wellbeing, while minimising the negative impacts across their life cycle.

These recommendations include revalorising plastic 'waste' (treating plastic waste as a resource) to support green growth and incentivise the emergence of next-generation plastics production and recycling technologies.

The report also shows that there is a significant opportunity for the UK to invest in chemical recycling to meet the demand for circular products, generating new job opportunities, and keeping plastic in the economy for longer.

Other recommendations include:

  1. Tax system reforms: adjusting tax systems to reflect the environmental cost of plastics and promote sustainable alternatives.
  2. Reducing incineration and landfilling: setting ambitious targets to minimise waste disposal through incineration and landfilling.
  3. Regulating bioplastics and compostables: implementing stricter marketing regulations on compostable and biodegradable plastics to prevent misleading claims.
  4. Promoting sustainable procurement: encouraging best practices in public sector procurement through life cycle assessments.
  5. Building the evidence base: funding research to understand the full impact of plastics on human health and the environment.
  6. Establishing a research centre: creating a national sustainable plastics innovation research centre to drive long-term solutions.

While currently only 1% of the UK's plastic demand is met through recycled plastic, several of the recommendations are poised to significantly enhance recycling capacity in the UK, which could reduce 20% of the country's plastic emissions by 2050.

But addressing plastic waste extends beyond recycling. By actively engaging in the broad range of topics explored in our report and recommendations, the UK Government can move the country toward a circular economy model that both preserves plastics as a crucial material and encourages sustainable consumption

The report was launched at the Houses of Parliament by Commission Chair, Baroness Molly Meacher, on 18 March 2024. Read the Sustainable Plastics Policy Commission report in full.

The graduate and student who are rethinking recycling

Birmingham alumnus Dr David Lihou (BSc Chemical Engineering, 1960; PhD Chemical Engineering, 1963) crossing the Atlantic with friend Robin

Birmingham alumnus Dr David Lihou (BSc Chemical Engineering, 1960; PhD Chemical Engineering, 1963) is a passionate supporter of the work being done by the Birmingham Plastics Network, having seen the sizeable impact of plastic pollution on our oceans. With two friends, also Trinidadians, Dr Lihou recently crossed the Atlantic Ocean in his catamaran (pictured).

He is funding PhD student Adam Redfearn through a generous gift. Adam's research on improving the processes for recycling plastics will help to reduce the amount of plastic waste that reaches the sea.

David says: 'As someone who has spent a lot of time sailing, I've witnessed first-hand the growing challenge we face with plastics in our oceans, and that is only one part of the complex picture.

'We need to reconsider our relationship with plastics and create innovative solutions that can promote a more sustainable future. That’s why I'm happy to support the research being done at Birmingham. The work that Adam and the wider team do will make a real difference.'

Find out how you can support Birmingham's research into protecting the environment or get in touch directly to discuss funding a PhD.