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Details of Grant 

EPSRC Reference: EP/S025278/1
Title: Plastics: Redefining Single-Use
Principal Investigator: Ryan, Professor AJ
Other Investigators:
Mykhaylyk, Dr O Webb, Professor TL Taylor, Professor AF
Webb, Dr TJ Warren, Professor P Jackson, Professor P
Reynolds, Dr C Watson, Professor M Styring, Professor P
Maltby, Professor L Mulligan, Mr S Geoghegan, Professor M
Martin, Professor N Spain, Dr SG Wong, Professor T
Wu, Dr Y Wilsdon, Professor J Evans, Professor D
Koh, Professor L Ogden, Dr MD Dunbar, Dr ADF
Rothman, Professor R Gavins, Professor J Howse, Dr J
Bruce, Mr R Martin, Professor P Jones, Professor R
Armes, Professor SP Hatton, Professor PV Fairclough, Professor JPA
Wood, Dr C Rothman, Dr AMK Holland, Dr CA
Salman, Professor A Wilkinson, Professor RD Stafford, Professor T
Researcher Co-Investigators:
Project Partners:
Department: Chemistry
Organisation: University of Sheffield
Scheme: Standard Research
Starts: 02 January 2019 Ends: 31 December 2020 Value (£): 1,035,896
EPSRC Research Topic Classifications:
EPSRC Industrial Sector Classifications:
No relevance to Underpinning Sectors
Related Grants:
Panel History:
Panel DatePanel NameOutcome
29 Oct 2018 UKRI Creative Circular Plastic Announced
Summary on Grant Application Form
Single-use plastics are a pervasive societal and environmental problem and what we need to know is "when and how does a circular economy for plastic make good sense?". Sometimes single-use plastic sometimes is the only way to go, provided the waste is dealt with properly. Even burning (to recovery the energy) is not such a bad option, just a tiny fraction of global GHG emissions. It is, however, obvious that we should make the best use of our both our fossil and renewable resources and the move towards a zero-waste, circular economy for plastics is needed. This should not become an ideology though, it must be based on evidence, perhaps on a case by case basis. This project will provide the methodology to work it out.

Whilst the technological development of advanced materials has been phenomenal, the commodity plastics used today have remained largely unchanged for decades. This proposal concerns single-use plastics in food and fast-moving consumer goods packaging, as well as their plastic ingredients and medical products. We will consider the whole plastics system, and build a use-phase approach to the whole supply circle in plastic production, manufacture and use, looking at how regulation and design can influence practice at all stages, from polymer production, retail management to consumer behaviour. The polymers (plastics) used in these materials have different environmental fates and depending on their usage, will need to be either re-used, recycled, or recovered. These three R's are in descending levels of desirability, and would benefit from a minimum of reprocessing.

Four cross-disciplinary teams will address the circular plastic economy from a technological perspective to understand how societal behaviour adapts to increased environmental understanding, regulatory nudges, intervention, and new product development. We will:

1) Develop new routes to the economically sustainable production of polymer feedstocks. We shall also develop new routes to improved recycling of commodity polymers as well as lengthening product lifespan.

2) Develop environmental risk and lifecycle assessments (ERA and LCA) in tandem, to understand the balance between these two different analytical approaches. An LCA considers the inputs that make the product and the benefits that recycling may accrue whereas an ERA focuses on the effects of that product on the environment, particularly in the case of disposal.

3) Improve our understanding of how markets, technologies, and culture co-exist, and how they drive change. Cross-national boundaries are particularly revealing and comparison between rich economies and the global south, where packaging is the primary cause of sea pollution will be considered.

4) Identify how to enable behavioural, organisational and societal change. We will consider the role of incentives, but we will also look beyond these traditional approaches and consider aesthetic and environmental motivations for behaviour. For example, how effectively rich economies can employ nudge techniques.

As well as frontline research, proof of concept studies will be performed to bring together different factors to understand different problems. These will be used to assess and exemplify the differences in approach where the balance between the three R's changes. For example, if biodegradable products are produced, will the consumer simply drive the production of more single-use products, on the grounds that they are biodegradable and therefore how they are discarded doesn't matter?

At the end of the project a new community will be working together in teams that understand that, for example, a technological solution is not in and of itself enough. People must be persuaded to use it, and use it responsibly. Scientists and engineers will understand the broader picture, and social and environmental scientists will also understand the limits of what technology can achieve.

Key Findings
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Potential use in non-academic contexts
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Description This information can now be found on Gateway to Research (GtR) http://gtr.rcuk.ac.uk
Date Materialised
Sectors submitted by the Researcher
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Further Information:  
Organisation Website: http://www.shef.ac.uk