Towards a sustainable plastic future: outreach and discussion

14 November 2022

Portrait of Dr Fernando Vidal Pena

by Dr Fernando Vidal Pena
Postdoctoral Researcher Chemistry

Dr Fernando Vidal Pena is a Newton International Fellow of the Royal Society (2020) in the group of Professor Charlotte Williams and leading postdoctoral researcher in Chemistry for the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Plastics.

The Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Plastics recently hosted a public panel discussion with experts from chemistry, environment, and law, on the challenges and opportunities in deploying future strategies for tackling the plastic waste problem.

Plastic pollution is becoming an increasingly common headline in news outlets as we learn more and more about the dire consequences of the accumulation of plastic in the environment. Plastic residues in the ocean are estimated to amount to 150 million metric tons, floating in large ocean patches, sinking to the bottom of the seafloor even in the deepest parts of our oceans, washing ashore and littering our coastlines. Microplastics are ingested by many animals as they feed in contaminated waters, passing inescapably through the food chain. National bans on single-use plastics as well as recycling and reusing schemes for household items are increasingly shaping the way we shop or handle our waste. Importantly, these facts and actions bring awareness to the general public about the extent of the plastic problem, raising the alarm among conscious voters, society leaders, and consumers.


The Oxford Martin School Lecture Theatre during the “Sustainable Plastics of the Future” event on 28th October 2022.

However, our collective technical and legislative efforts to tackle future dependence on plastic materials is much less widely known. On 28th October 2022, the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Plastics, in collaboration with the Oxford chapter of the Society of Spanish Researchers in the UK, hosted a public conversation, bringing to the forefront the work that pioneering researchers and law makers are carrying out to solve the many facets of the plastic problem.

Entitled “Sustainable Plastics of the Future”, this one-of-a-kind event brought together three experts, Professor Richard Bailey, Professor Marta E.G. Mosquera, and Dr. Eva van der Marel, who contributed to the dialogue from complementary perspectives in environmental modelling, polymer chemistry, and international law, respectively. This unique mix of backgrounds are rarely seen sharing the stage and openly engaging with the public, despite the importance of working across sectors to reshape the future of plastics. I was proud to chair the event and lead the panel discussion.


Prof Marta E.G. Mosquera (left), Prof Richard Bailey (centre), and Dr Fernando Vidal (right) during the panel discussion.

Professor Bailey, a professor of environmental systems at the University of Oxford and Senior Fellow at the Institute for New Economic Thinking at the Oxford Martin School, described his team’s modelling efforts to quantify the sources and flows of plastic waste that contribute to an increase in ocean plastic pollution. The goal of his model is to provide a comprehensive and realistic roadmap to reduce global plastic pollution, indicating not only the possible strategies through the value chain, but also the economic, environmental, and societal repercussions of implementing these decisions.

Professor Mosquera is a professor in inorganic chemistry at the University of Alcala in Spain and co-leader of the research group soscatcom. Her research focuses on the development of new earth-abundant metal catalysts for the fabrication of bio-based polymers with the aim to generating materials that one day can compete or surpass current plastics derived from fossil fuels. She spoke about the significance of high performing plastics for achieving many sustainable development goals, and the importance of degradable polymer chains in tackling the pervasiveness of plastic pollution.

Dr Eva van der Marel is an international law scholar and postdoctoral researcher in the Future of Plastics programme. She explained both the historical and future roles that international law has to play in shaping sustainable plastic production and mandating environmentally responsible waste management. Public awareness of governmental discussions at these high levels are particularly important on the wake of the announcement of a legally binding UN Treaty of Plastic Pollution, an ambitious project to be completed by the end of 2024.

People joined from all corners of Oxford and beyond for the unique opportunity to learn and interact directly with the panellists. It represented a powerful and positive chance to inform and educate attendees of the challenges and opportunities of creating a sustainable future for plastics. The event was funded by the Royal Society of Chemistry and the European Commission.

This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.