Can a creative approach help fix the plastics problem?


University of Oxford

Plastic waste

Design Museum London

Image: Felix Speller, The Design Museum

By Professor Charlotte WilliamsProfessor of Inorganic Chemistry

Charlotte Williams OBE FRS is iCAST Deputy Director, Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at the University of Oxford and a Lead Researcher on the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Plastics. Her research interests are in polymerization catalysis, polymer chemistry and nanoparticle synthesis

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.

Plastic is so useful in our society in large part because of its durability – but this durability is also a major factor in the problem of plastic pollution. Over 350 million tonnes of plastic waste is produced annually, but only a fraction is recycled.

From fashion to food, electronics to construction, even packaging – finding the lost value in our trash and imagining a future of clean materials and a circular economy could point the way out of the Waste Age. 

The Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Plastics and the Williams Group have been investigating new types of polymers that can be directly made using carbon dioxide combined with waste citrus fruit peel compounds. The resulting polymers are plastics, elastics and coatings – in future they could be used to make insulation foams, soft furnishings, glues and coatings for wood or steel.

As polymer scientists, the team are designers – innovating from the millionth of a millimetre in scale to provide useful materials for real-world applications. By using molecular design principles, the team considers all aspects of the material’s life cycle from the raw materials used to make plastics to the manufacturing processes to fabricate products to the end-life recycling options.

Their research was recently featured as an interactive display at the Design Museum exhibition, bringing polymer science and the future of recycling to over 20,000 visitors. As well as the exhibit, which showcases several different types of polymer samples, molecular models and a video showing the fantastic laboratory in Oxford Chemistry, the exhibition also included a short film featuring Professor Charlotte Williams, the programme’s lead researcher, discussing how chemistry can positively contribute to a sustainable future of plastics.

The Waste Age exhibition tells the story of society’s relationship with waste: from the throwaway culture which developed in the 60’s alongside the boom in commercial polymers; the alarming scale of the waste problem at present; to the ideas, practices and products that are envisioned to comprise our ‘post-waste’ future. The latter element contained contributions from designers of all stripes. The exhibition ultimately aims to demonstrate how the production of waste is central to our way of life whilst inspiring hope for a greener and more conscientious world.

The exhibition ran from November 2021-February 2022.

This opinion piece was originally published here and does not necessarily reflect the position of the iCAST, the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.

Image: Felix Speller, The Design Museum.

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