A sustainable future for plastics is within our grasp. But it will require chemical scientists, policymakers, those in industry, and those from a range of disciplines to work together.
In this series of explainers, we look at some of the difficult questions around this important issue. Whether you are already a scientific expert, or you are new to this topic, you can use our handy guides to start conversations and inform yourself and those around you.
Due to their size, widespread occurrence and persistence in the environment, there is concern about the impact of microplastics on organisms including plant life, and ultimately humans.
Microplastics have been found almost everywhere researchers have looked for them, and are ubiquitous in the marine environment. In this explainer we look at the different categories of microplastic, where they come from, what their impacts can be, and how we can mitigate the harm that they cause.
Life Cycle Assessment
What something is made out of and how it is made affects its use, but also its environmental impacts through its lifetime, and what happens to it after it has reached the end of its use.
Life cycle assessment (LCA) allows us to measure the environmental impacts associated with a product or service throughout its lifespan. This explainer takes us through how we conduct LCAs, how they can help us make more sustainable choices, and how we can improve their use and communication.
The future of recycling
When thinking about the future of our relationship with plastics, we should start by considering plastic a valuable resource to be conserved… Recycling is an important component of a well-functioning circular economy.
Moving towards a better recycling system for plastic not only helps with the environmental problems that come from waste, but also allows us to remove our reliance on fossil resources for plastic production. Our first explainer of this set looks at the current recycling system in the UK and how it could be improved.
Mechanical recycling is still the top option for many plastics as it has the lowest carbon footprint and is the best in terms of minimising overall environmental impact.
Mechanical recycling is currently almost the sole form of recycling in Europe, representing more than 99% of the quantities recycled. But what actually happens to your plastic once it leaves the recycling bin? Can we go further in optimising the infrastructure we already have? This explainer describes the recycling process, and some of its challenges.
For plastics that can’t be easily or effectively mechanically recycled – for instance mixed polymers or composite plastics – chemical recycling provides an opportunity to ‘close the loop’, retaining some value and avoiding materials going to landfill or incineration.
Chemical recycling is an umbrella term for several technologies that use heat or chemical processes, or both, to break apart the polymer chain within the plastic. In this explainer we look at what that means from a chemistry point of view and compare some of the processes.
Towards more sustainable plastics
We don't have the best track record on living with plastics, and especially disposing of plastics, but they have improved lives, and are a valuable resource.
Plastics have radically improved medical technology and food handling, as well as reducing carbon emissions for goods transportation. Our first explainer looks at how chemical scientists are working to maximise the positive benefits of plastics while minimising their negative effects.
Compostable and biodegradable plastics
As more ‘sustainable plastics’ are introduced to the market, citizens are faced with the decision of which products to buy and how to dispose of them.
In our second explainer, we look at the variety of products that are described as compostable or biodegradable, and discuss when and how they should be used, and how infrastructre needs to change to optimise their use.
Additives for degradable plastics
New, innovative, environmentally degradable plastics could help to reduce the impact of plastic pollution, but their use must be informed by transparent research.
This explainer looks at the method of including additives in plastics to trigger them to degrade when they are discarded. We explore the outstanding questions around this approach, and how we might ensure these polymers will truly biodegrade in the environment.
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