Recovering the value of plastics

Michael Shaver, Professor of Polymer Science, looks at how we can innovate as the use of single-use plastics increased during the pandemic.

Prior to COVID-19, our relationship with plastic had changed as we shifted away from single-use items. However, the hygiene concerns raised during the pandemic have caused us to turn back towards disposable plastics.

Plastics are important to securing our food chain and our food supply, in healthcare and in protecting us from the propagation of coronavirus.

But we can achieve a greener world by building a circular plastics economy, one that can recycle this material through an ecosystem that recovers value from discarded plastic products.

Recorded in August 2020.

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Lecture transcript

Hi, I'm Mike Shaver. I'm a Professor of Polymer Science in the Department of Materials and I guess this is my contribution to the COVID Catalyst series.

My expertise is in sustainability and polymers and really the COVID challenge has really highlighted and given a new perspective on why this is both an urgent and really global challenge that we're facing.

We think about sustainability. We think about, you know, why we have been generating those polymers, those plastic materials that we see in our everyday lives.

Traditionally, these come from petroleum resources, but we have expertise in the University that can provide that [production from] renewable resources. And we also have to think about what happens at end of life.

And this is especially important when we suddenly have very much changed our practices around plastic.

So, we think about a couple of examples of that. One around reuse. We were shifting as a culture towards going into our coffee shops, with our reusable cup and getting our coffee refilled, removing that waste from the environment.

Now, we have real concerns with that - potential for contamination of those materials with coronavirus, or other concerns around hygiene, have really now limited the public's adoption of that, when in fact, we really should be growing it.

So that points to potential innovations and antimicrobial surfaces and new ways we handle materials and sanitise materials.

And then we have the growing diversity of waste that we have in our everyday lives from increased packaging use, because we're all stuck at home - this is my living room behind me - to a dramatic change in the types of plastic that we have, including gloves and masks.

And while these materials are often recyclable, we don't have the infrastructure with which we can recycle them, and so our expertise and the expertise in the Sustainable Materials Innovation Hub, really allows us to do world-class research on how we can both improve the sustainability of how we use materials in promoting reuse, as well as what happens to those materials at end of life, to promote a more circular plastics economy and try and recover value from those materials.

All while recognising their importance to securing our food chain and our food supply, its role in healthcare and its role in protecting us from the propagation of coronavirus.

Research and further information