Dig It UP! The Research
Plastics are all around us. Almost all aspects of our daily life include them; from buying a bottle of pop before class, preparing and eating lunch, and even unwrapping our latest online purchases. They also make up a large part of items that we are less aware of, such as in the manufacturing of furniture, technology, and even the UK’s new £35, £10, and £20 notes. Their durability, versatility, and cost-effective manufacturing gives plastics many advantages, making them one of the most popular materials in modern society.
Despite their advantages, we only have to watch documentaries such as David Attenborough’s Blue Planet to understand the severe problems associated with plastic pollution. Their durability now threatens the natural world, causing pollution in almost every ecosystem. Plastics never fully degrade when thrown away, they either stay whole and trap wildlife or they degrade slowly over time into smaller pieces known as microplastics. Every year, 100,000 sea animals are killed due to plastic, and that number is set to increase. Over eight million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean each year, and scientists warn that by 2050 the amount of plastic in the ocean will weigh more than the number of fish!
It’s not just wildlife that are being affected by plastics, microplastics are now entering our water sources and food-chain too. The average human whose diet includes meat and seafood eats the equivalent of a credit card amount of plastic each week! A study conducted at the end of 2020 even detected evidence of microplastics within the placenta, being carried between mother and foetus through the bloodstream.
A lot of people are trying to help as much as they can by being smart with their plastic waste and sorting it to be sent for recycling. But not all plastics are created equal. Some can’t be recycled due to the difficulty and cost, and others can only be recycled a few times before ending up in a land-fill with normal rubbish.
Most plastics have a special name or a number which states what type of plastic they are and if they are suitable for recycling. Check out our handy guide below:
Sometimes, due to costs and contamination, plastics which are suitable for recycling get thrown away instead. Some companies which collect recyclable plastics don’t actually recycle them, instead shipping large amounts of plastics into poorer countries which pollutes ecosystems and endangers the health of both communities and wildlife.
More and more companies are trying to curb their plastic use by swapping to sustainable alternatives. When England brought out the 5p charge for single use carrier bags in 2015, many large supermarket chains went one stop further and banned them completely. Now when you enter a supermarket giant, you might find different options like a reusable Bag for Life (made from a percentage of recycled materials), or bags which are classed as biodegradable or compostable. Let’s uncover these different types of bags and look at their environmental impact:
Since the single-use carrier bag ban, more people have been opting for Bags for Life. Though instead of reusing them as intended, studies show that many customers simply use them as a replacement for single-use bags and throw them away after use. Others switch to biodegradable carrier bags as an eco-friendly alternative, not knowing that the bag will take tens of years to degrade into smaller pieces of plastics.
The terms “biodegradable” and “compostable” can often get mixed up. Here’s a quick explanation to help. Biodegradable means an item that is capable of being broken down partly or fully by living organisms. Biodegradable plastics do not break down fully, just into smaller micro-plastics, whereas biodegradable plant materials break down completely, and can therefore also be classed as compostable.
Scientists are still researching the best alternatives to plastics, and that’s just what you can find happening at the University of Wolverhampton.
The University of Wolverhampton prides itself on it’s pioneering scientific research, including a progressive field called Green Chemistry. What this subtype of chemistry intends to do, is provide more environmentally conscious solutions to current chemical technologies, and improve the sustainability of current chemical production processes. The Rosalind Franklin building at the University of Wolverhampton plays host to a variety of Green Chemistry projects, and is at the forefront of chemical research in the UK.
Professor Nazira Karodia, the Pro-Vice Chancellor of Regional Engagement at the University of Wolverhampton, has had an interest in Green Chemistry since the beginning of her academic career in South Africa. Her research interests within Green Chemistry mainly focused on ionic liquids and liquid crystalline polymers.
Here at the University of Wolverhampton, we pride ourselves on planning for the future, which has a big focus on sustainability. This is why the University has developed a five year Sustainability Strategy that seeks to limit our impact on the environment in which we operate and to ensure we safeguard the environment for future generations. This includes being mindful of where any waste is going; potential changes to University-funded travel services; as well as looking into new environmentally friendly energy options.
Dr Iza Radecka, Professor in Biotechnology at the University’s Faculty of Science and Engineering department, is the key researcher for perfecting a pioneering ‘King Midas’ approach to plastics – with old water bottles and other types of plastic waste being turned into high value materials in this research, for example, different types of biodegradable polymers to be uses in agriculture, medicine and general household items.
This research, as well as other Green Chemistry projects and more, is undertaken in the advanced bio-fermentation laboratory in the Rosalind Franklin building. You can come on a tour with us around this state-of-the art facility, and meet the incredible researchers behind the pioneering Green Chemistry projects, by clicking on the video below.
By working on plastic alternatives and utilising waste materials, we can work towards creating a greener future and improved environments for both communities and wildlife around the world. The biodegradable polymers produced at the University of Wolverhampton aim to lead the way of eco-friendly plastics for both domestic and commercial use.
In 2022, the United Kingdom’s government plan to introduce a tax on all plastic items which are not made from at least 30% recycled sources. This has prompted large stores and supermarkets to rethink their transportation and packaging processes. ASDA stores have committed to packaging items with only plastics that can be recycled, and re-using their own packaging to create more bags for life, clothes hangers, and shopping baskets. Similarly, Sainsbury’s have committed to halving their plastic use, and are urging their suppliers to do the same, and Aldi aims to use only 100% recyclable or compostable packaging across their entire range by 2025.
We all have a role to play in the development of a green future. One of the simplest things we can do to help is to reduce the amount of plastic we buy. Whether this means bringing your own bags to the store so you don’t need to buy a bag for life, choosing vegetables and fruit without plastic packaging, or using a refillable water bottle. You could even attempt your own composting using green waste (food scraps) and brown waste (compostable bags and paper). Some of these changes can be difficult, so remember that everyone is different and every small attempt helps! Be sure to check out the discussion points for more ideas, and think about unique ways to reduce your plastic use.
Musiol, M., Jurczyk, S., Sobota, M., Klim, M., Sikorska, W., Zieba, M., Janeczek, H., Rydz, J., Kurcok, P., Johnston, B. & Radecka, I. (2020) (Bio)Degradable Polymeric Materials for Sustainable Future—Part 3: Degradation Studies of the PHA/Wood Flour-Based Composites and Preliminary Tests of Antimicrobial Activity. Materials. 13(8). DOI: 10.3990/ma13092200
Musiol, M., Rydz, J., Janeczek, H., Radecka, I., Jiang, G. & Kowalczuk, M. (2017) Forensic engineering of advanced polymeric materials Part IV: Case study of oxo-biodegradable polyethylene commercial bag – Aging in biotic and abiotic environment. Waste Management. 64. DOI: 10.1016/j.wasman.2017.03.043
Cox, K., Covernton, G., Davies, H., Dower, J., Juanes, F. & Dudas, S. (2019) Human consumption of Microplastics. Environmental Science and Technology. 53(12). DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.9b01517
Ragusa, A., Svelato, A., Santacroce, C., Catalano, P., Notarstefano, V., Carnevali, O., Papa, F., Rongioletti, M., Baiocco, F., Darghi, S., D’Amore, E., Rinaldo, D., Matta, M. & Giorgini, E. (2020) Plasticenta: First Evidence of microplastics in human placenta. Environment International. 146. DOI: 10.1016/j.envint.2020.106274
DEFRA. (2015) Review of standards for biodegradable plastic carrier bags. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/carrier-bags-review-of-standards-for-biodegradable-plastic-bags. (accessed 19th Feb 2021).
1) How is wildlife affected by plastic pollution? Can you think of any specific example?
2) What do you think consequences of humans eating micro-plastics would be?
3) By using their Green Chemistry, what could the University of Wolverhampton do to reduce plastics within the university?
4) Are most companies making a great enough effort to reduce their plastic use? If not, what could be some improvements?
5) How could you and your families reduce the amount of plastic you use? What could you change, and how easy / difficult would it be?
We've posted some discussion points above to get you thinking, but we’d love to hear from you!
We’ll be hosting two LIVE Q&A events where you can ask questions of the Wolverhampton team behind the Dig It UP! resources.
Check out our 'Welcome' page for dates and times.
Post your questions / comments below. You can add them at any time:https://app.sli.do/event/qvetkxl3
Polymer: a substance which has a molecular structure built up from a large number of similar units bonded together
Biodegradable: an object capable of being broken down by bacteria or other living organisms
Compostable: Materials that are broken down completely by bacteria or other living organisms into biomass, water, and carbon dioxide.
Plastic Pollution: The accumulation of whole plastics and micro-plastic particles that negatively effect the environment
Recycle: Processing waste and turning them into new useable products.