University of Sheffield researchers join forces to tackle plastic waste

University of Sheffield scientists launch a pioneering interdisciplinary study to tackle the billions of tons of plastic waste polluting the world.

Waste plastic bottles and other materials

Researchers from across the University of Sheffield are set to combine their expertise in order to help tackle the billions of tons of plastic waste around the world as part of a pioneering new project.

The interdisciplinary study, led by Professor Tony Ryan and Dr Rachael Rothman from the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures at the University of Sheffield, will gather together scientists and engineers with researchers from the arts, humanities, medicine and social sciences to develop real-world solutions for reducing the amount of plastic waste.

Launched from an £8 million fund from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), this £1 million project brings together world-class experts from across disciplines at the University of Sheffield to explore how plastic waste from medical products, food and fast-moving consumer goods can be reduced.

“The underlying principle behind our research is understanding the benefits of plastic we want to maintain and balancing them against health and environmental costs.”

Professor Tony Ryan

Having an interdisciplinary team enables the researchers to investigate and improve our understanding of the different aspects underpinning the huge global problem of plastic waste in order to develop tangible solutions that have the potential to be adopted in the real-world.

The team will focus on single-use plastics and examine every stage of the plastic life cycle – from the manufacturing process through to how products with single-use plastics are used and disposed of by the consumer.

Professor Tony Ryan said: “There is currently around eight billion tons of plastic waste scattered around the world – if this was to be brought together into one big lump then it would be a solid cube 2km wide, 2km long and 2km high, which would be as big as the world’s largest airliner factory and four times the volume of London’s O2 stadium.

“Sadly for us and the planet, this vast amount of plastic waste isn’t in one safe place, it’s everywhere. It’s in our towns and cities, the countryside, our beaches and even our oceans. Also this isn’t something that is just affecting our environment, plastic waste causes huge economic and social costs too.”

"The amount of plastic waste is set to become even worse over the coming years, but it’s a problem that needs to be tackled now."

Professor Tony Ryan

He added: “In order to reduce and work towards eliminating plastic waste we have to understand that this is not just a scientific problem – it’s also a social problem. It’s a problem in which we need to understand why and how people use plastic in their everyday lives, which is why we need to work together with researchers from the arts, humanities and social sciences where understanding human behaviour is at the heart of their disciplines.

The interdisciplinary team will include University of Sheffield chemists, biologists, psychologists, dentists, engineers, social scientists, geographers, and politics and language experts from all career stages working together to understand human behaviour and promote change on individual, societal and cultural levels. Workshops for a range of stakeholders from industry, business, policy and recycling will also be held as part of the project.

The Plastics: Redefining Single-Use project has been announced by the UK’s Science Minister, Chris Skidmore, as part of funding for a series of projects that are exploring new and different ways of making, using and recycling plastics. It will be conducted by researchers from across the University’s Faculty of Science, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Faculty of Social Sciences, Faculty of Engineering and Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health.

The University of Sheffield’s project follows the government’s Industrial Strategy, which has identified producing less carbon intensive products, including plastics, as a key challenge area alongside reducing plastic waste. The strategy aims to build a circular economy where greater emphasis is placed on ‘use, reuse and recycle’.