The Oxford Martin Programme on

The Future of Plastics

The Challenge

The usefulness of plastic in every aspect of our lives is sadly matched by the ubiquity of discarded plastic; over 350 million tonnes are produced annually but only a fraction of these plastics are recycled and many are pervasive materials not designed for degradation.

Plastic pollution, visible around the world on land and in our oceans, is a direct result of the extraordinary durability of current plastics. Plastics, however, are also vital to meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. They are used in lightweight transport for greater fuel efficiency, water purification membranes, high-performance electronics, food waste reduction, efficient insulation, and in essential medical devices like IV bags, syringes and catheters.

Restructuring the lifecycle of plastics to become more ‘circular’, i.e. eliminating waste by designing for disassembly and re-use, has the potential to solve many of these problems while maintaining plastic’s valuable contribution towards meeting the SDGs. Solving the problems with the current manufacture, use and disposal of plastics requires thinking across deeply ingrained disciplinary boundaries as well as strong engagement with the manufacturing and end-use industries. This programme will bring together experts to work creatively on the technical, economic and legal issues around a future plastics economy that supports, rather than undermines, the SDGs.

We will work to develop new materials for use in those plastics sectors that present particularly difficult problems. Part of this will be investigating the under-explored concept of chemical recycling where plastics are broken down to their base ingredients and those are re-used. This would allow multiple recycling loops for the same plastics without compromising their useful properties. In the long term, we also aim to develop packaging that is both recyclable and biodegradable.

As well as the new materials themselves, we will also develop an implementation roadmap identifying how to break down the market, regulatory and social barriers to their widespread adoption. This will be developed with feedback from stakeholders including industry, NGOs, international bodies and academia.

Our core objective is moving to a new plastics economy, where future plastics are fully recyclable but ultimately degradable. Developing interventions to change technology, law, social policy, human behaviour and economics, as well as the prototyping of patented materials and products, will be essential to achieving this. We envision a future that limits environmental damage and pollution without losing the many benefits that plastics provide.