New research is urgently needed to improve our understanding of plastics and their impacts to secure a sustainable future for a material that fulfils vital roles in society according to an international union of chemical societies and funding agencies.
Atsushi Takahara from Kyushu University joined learned societies and funders from China, Germany, Japan, and the UK to summarize a white paper for creating a circular economy for plastics, by preserving the crucial function they serve in society while introducing much better recyclability and reusability into their design. The meeting was the latest edition of the Chemical Sciences and Society Summit (CS3), which takes place every two years.
Plastics’ worst environmental impacts are a common sight in the news or on social media, but they also play crucial roles in producing renewable energy, reducing the environmental impact of transport, preserving fresh food, and protecting it from contamination.
Plastics have also played a lifesaving role during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as personal protective equipment such as masks, gowns, and gloves all contain plastic.
A report on the findings, published last week, says that plastics are likely to play a crucial role in healthcare and low-carbon technologies in the future: it is vital that new types of plastic are designed to fulfil those roles without adverse impact on the environment. The report was published by the Chemical Society of Japan and JST partnership with an international group of learned societies and funding bodies.
Professor Charlotte Williams, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford, who chaired the meeting, said:
“We use plastics because they can do things other materials cannot. We have an opportunity and an obligation to think about how we can re-design plastics to make them fully sustainable and fit for purpose, both for existing applications and for those we will need tomorrow. In the process, we must aim to reduce and even reverse some of the damage plastic pollution has already caused.
“The solution cannot be to ‘ban’ plastics or to replace them with alternative materials like paper, glass or metals. These alternatives also involve significant environmental impacts and in some cases are less sustainable than using plastics.
“Building a new future for plastics will require extensive collaboration across disciplines—including science, engineering, social sciences, policy, regulation and business.”