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Clarion call for plastics revolution

Project leader professor Steve Fletcher.
Credit: Helen Yates

 

Adapted article from SOLVE magazine, the University of Portsmouth’s recently-published research magazine. See www.port.ac.uk/solve   REPORT BY BRAD COLLIS

When the first production line was conceived and installed to mass-produce pulley blocks for the Royal Navy in the latter stages of the Napoleonic Wars, it placed Portsmouth at the start of the Industrial Revolution. Today, Portsmouth is leading another revolution – to change the world’s relationship with one of the twentieth century’s most pervasive technologies: plastic.

Teams of scientists, business-leaders, campaigners and citizens are being assembled by the University of Portsmouth to transform the manufacture, use and disposal of this seductively convenient but polluting material, which has generated a contamination crisis on land and at sea.

Revolution Plastics, as the initiative has been dubbed, has set out to create a new plastics economy based on improved recyclability, policy support from all tiers of government, and community engagement to achieve behavioural change in the use of plastics.

 

Why Portsmouth?

Portsmouth is seen as a microcosm of the technical, economic, societal and political hurdles that need to be cleared in most countries to enable changes to plastics life cycles and environmental management. 

Portsmouth has vulnerable coastal and marine environments, faces rising sea levels, is adjacent to UNESCO’s Biosphere Reserve on the Isle of Wight, and has the UK’s highest urban population density outside London, with pockets of deprivation and poor health.

There is also a rising level of environmental awareness through local organisations and groups advocating sustainability, conservation and plastic waste reduction. This is the community foundation that the University intends to support and build upon. 

An extensive survey of Portsmouth residents found most people are acutely aware of plastic pollution, along with climate change and energy issues. Almost all respondents said they had made some effort already to modify their uses of plastics, such as using alternative shopping bags, refusing plastic straws and increasing their recycling. 

The survey showed most people are keen to reduce plastic waste, but they require guidance, support and, critically, assurance they will not be the ones bearing the cost.

This is where the science – chemical, industrial, economic and social – comes in, and why project leader Professor Steve Fletcher says if the Portsmouth community can revolutionise the use of plastics as part of a larger sustainability platform, then any community in the world can. “We see this being a pilot programme for the planet … an incubator for similar programmes in other cities, communities and countries,” he says. 

Only one per cent of people surveyed hold a view that individuals are powerless and therefore recycling or changing plastic use is pointless. The main barrier, for the majority of people, is knowing what to do.  

People’s knowledge of climate change and environmental pressures, such as plastic pollution, is steadily increasing. What’s missing are clear, practical answers and evidence that manufacturers, food and transport industries and governments are taking a lead.

 

Knowledge bank

To address this, the University will position itself as the broker, providing research support for manufacturers, users, civic administrators and consumers. Professor Fletcher, who is Director of the University’s Sustainability and the Environment research theme and an adviser to the United Nations on ocean resources, says the Revolution Plastics programme seeks to achieve a transition away from unsustainable and polluting practices to a future in which sustainable plastics manufacturing and consumption is the norm. 

All aspects of society, the economy and politics need to adapt to achieve sustainability. He explains: “Transitioning to a sustainable plastics future creates an opportunity to engage with multiple disciplines – biology, psychology, marine sciences, geosciences, fashion, food and urban design – and industry and community sectors, at different scales and intensities.”

 

The plastic-digesting enzyme

Revolution Plastics builds on the momentum created by the University’s globally acclaimed engineering of an enzyme that can digest some of the most commonly polluting plastics, such as plastic bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which persists for hundreds of years in the environment.

A team of scientists worked with the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory to solve the crystal structure of PETase – a recently discovered enzyme that digests PET. During this study, they engineered an enzyme that is even better at degrading the plastic than the one that evolved naturally.

The ongoing research is now supported by the Centre for Enzyme Innovation, which, in partnerships with industry, will have the capacity to take on the global plastics challenge.

 

A collaborative approach

The University itself is already leading by example, showing what is possible through its own procurement, use and disposal of resources (materials, water, energy and services). This will work hand in glove with the formation of community and industry partnerships to transform the city into a global civic leader in sustainability.

Some of this work will connect plastics research and sustainability with the city’s identity and enmesh plastics-related projects, groups, campaigns and organisations, including schools, with university teaching and research. The University wants to work with local organisations and is planning to host events, talks and other activities so the city community can join the revolution. 

Find out more at www.port.ac.uk or email revolutionplastics@port.ac.uk


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