Plastics have impacted almost every aspect of our lives. From ubiquitous packaging, bulk materials and smartphones to invisible polymers added to cleaning products to improve performance; modern life would be impossible without them. However, the vast majority of plastics are only possible because of unconstrained access to low cost crude hydrocarbons, and. ignorance of the environmental and social ramifications of plastic pollution has been widely highlighted by the negative impacts of microplastics and plastic litter in the global environment. Plastics are a paradox. Plastics pose an urgent, wicked and persistent problem to be resolved. How do we confront the complexity of co-creating a world in which plastics play a positive role and leave no destructive legacy?
Imagine a world in which we were free from these limitations and could question our fundamental relationship with plastics.
In this world we can determine where plastics were advantageous over other materials, determine what properties are really required in those applications and design sustainable materials and systems to allow their use. Moreover, our sustainable world would not be limited by the available materials, manufacturing, social and governance systems or the neoliberal framework of consumerism that defines how we value, purchase, use, and dispose of plastics.
Current systems limit thinking, hinder creativity and hence restrict the radical redesign of our interactions with plastics. Alternatives to plastic do exist but they remain marginalised, experimental and seen as deficient in some way, which acts as a barrier to their adoption. Currently, the negative environmental impact of plastic alternatives is estimated to be 3.8 times higher than plastic itself. In order to address these negative impacts the University of Birmingham created the Birmingham Plastics Network, an interdisciplinary team of more than 40 academics working together to shape the fate and sustainable future of plastics. This research network enables findings from research into all aspects of the plastic life cycle to be assembled into a systemic solution set. The research has advanced our understanding of plastics, ranging from the formulation of plastics, alternative source materials, how plastic degrades in eco-systems, circular economy solutions, pricing, taxes, product design, infrastructure, regulations and culture. The Birmingham Plastics Network has brought together chemists, environmental scientists, philosophers, linguists, economists, artists, writers, lawyers, and experts in many other fields, to holistically address the global plastics problem. What is emerging is the possibility of a sustainable future for plastics, but more needs to be done. We need a collective effort to bring plastics, the environment and societies together in an imagined decarbonized future.
Plastics, energy, fossil fuels and carbon emissions are tightly interconnected and consumption-driven lifestyles are pushing us ever closer to the edges of climate related tipping points.
To overcome this, we require a transition to a net zero decarbonised world. Life in the future may have different needs, wants, values and priorities and be constrained by socio-ecological limits, some predictable and others not so. Exploring our future relationships with plastics within these limits is as important as fixing our past relationships.
The challenge is to imagine sustainable solutions to the production, use and re-use of this complex material. It raises many complex interlinked questions with massive knowledge gaps to be filled. Birmingham Plastics Network is looking to engage the collective wisdom of the Forum for Global Challenges Online Community as part of our efforts to answer these four questions:
- What is the ideal relationship between plastics and the planet for a sustainable, decarbonised future?
- How can we meet society's future material needs through inclusive and resilient circular solutions for a future decarbonised world?
- How can societies achieve a sustainable relationship between plastic usage and the environment?
- How do location specific factors (climate, everyday practices, socio-cultural norms) shape what materials and systems people want and need?
More details on the Birmingham Plastics Network is available from https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/research/spotlights/plastics-network.aspx