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.

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Oxford Martin scientists launch ambitious roadmap for circular carbon plastics economy

Researchers from an Oxford Martin programme have outlined ambitious targets to help deliver a sustainable and net zero plastic economy, arguing for a rethinking of the technical, economic, and policy paradigms that have entrenched the status-quo - one of rising carbon emissions and uncontrolled pollution.

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Towards a sustainable plastic future: outreach and discussion

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.

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Researchers honoured with Royal Society Awards

Professor Charlotte Williams OBE FRS and Professor Raymond Pierrehumbert FRS have both received prestigious medals from the Royal Society in recognition of their outstanding contributions to science.

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Can a creative approach help fix the plastics problem?

In a recent exhibition at The Design Museum, London, a new generation of designers sought to rethink our relationship to everyday things – with a little help from polymer science.

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Creating a carbon-negative future for polymers and plastics

Carbon-based products, such as plastic and polymers, pharmaceuticals, and fertilisers, are indispensable components of modern economic and social systems. Traditionally, this carbon has been sourced from petrochemicals.

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Professor Charlotte Williams awarded Tilden prize for advances in chemistry

Professor Charlotte Williams OBE has been awarded the Tilden prize from the Royal Society of Chemistry, celebrating the most exciting chemical science taking place today. Professor Williams was awarded the prize to honour her contributions to sustainable polymer chemistry.

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outreach and media

Future of plastics webinar: key takeaways

Experts from the Oxford Martin School, the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment and The Purpose Business joined forces in May 2020 to look at the future of plastics and moving to a new plastics economy.

Oxford researchers Professor Charlotte Williams and Professor Cameron Hepburn took part in the webinar, which was moderated by Dr Merrin Pearse of The Purpose Business.

Read the key takeaways here, and watch the full webinar here.

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