Blue plastic pellets

From plastic-degrading enzymes to advising the G20 on marine plastics policy, the University outlined its latest thinking at the UK’s largest conference focussed on sustainability in plastics research

  • 31 March 2021
  • 6 min read

The University of Portsmouth shared its latest plastics research at the Global Research and Innovation in Plastics Sustainability (GRIPS) 2021. 

The conference brought together academic and industrial communities to highlight the best activities to reduce the amount of plastics reaching landfills, being incinerated, or polluting the natural environment.

The University was involved in sessions on each day of the conference, showcasing the interdisciplinary research we’re undertaking through Revolution Plastics, particularly within our Centre for Enzyme Innovation (CEI).  

The famous plastic-eating enzyme

Professor John McGeehan, Director of the CEI, joined the conference’s opening plenary as a keynote speaker to explain the science behind the plastic-degrading enzyme engineered by the University and its partners. 

We can learn from what we observe in the natural environment, accelerate it in the lab, and turn hazards into solutions, Professor McGeehan explained. CEI scientists took a naturally occurring enzyme found in a Japanese plastic recycling rubbish dump and accelerated it in the lab to develop an enzyme cocktail that can digest PET plastic six times faster. We’re now working with partners to scale up the solution to recycle plastics at an industrial level. 

 

We can learn from what we observe in the natural environment, accelerate it in the lab, and turn hazards into solutions

John McGeehan, Professor of Structural Biology and Director of the Centre for Enzyme Innovation

And the appetite for solutions to the plastics crisis is huge. Coverage of this research breakthrough reached an estimated audience of 2.4 billion people and its related research paper ranked in the Altmetric Top 100 list of research papers in 2020

Could a global treaty tackle the plastic problem? 

An in-depth review by the United Nations Environment Programme concluded that “no global agreement exists to specifically prevent marine plastic litter and microplastics or provide a comprehensive approach to managing the lifecycle of plastics.” So who is responsible for fixing the plastics problem? Is it individuals, governments, businesses, manufacturers or society as a whole? 

A panel of experts, listed below, debated whether a legally binding global treaty could enforce the collective action required to address the growing health and environmental impacts associated with plastics. 

The panel included:

There was consensus that there are significant gaps in the existing plastics governance framework, such as policies to tackle plastic pollution from land based sources, policies that take into account the full plastics lifecycle and which recognise that the same legislation may not work for all countries. 

The panel concluded that a future global agreement on plastics should focus on the following

  1. The full lifecycle of plastics, not just plastic waste. 
  2. Designing sustainability into products and encouraging innovation to accelerate a circular economy.
  3. Providing financial assistance to support innovation, such as modern infrastructure for the rapid collection and sorting and recycling of materials. 
  4. The scaling up of Extended Producer Responsibility schemes, particularly in less developed countries.
  5. Standardisation of additives in plastics to enable easier collection and re-use and further research into their impact on human health.
  6. Facilitating research and sharing knowledge. Global agreements don't exist in isolation but are supported by research bodies, which allows implementation to adapt as more evidence comes forward.
  7. Engaging citizens and raising awareness of the plastic problem to encourage sustainable behaviour.
  8. Finally, it must be legally binding. We need a political commitment to tackle this international issue. Any global agreement should provide leadership to give nations a sense of direction and shared ownership.

Watch the session in full on the UKCNP website, or read Professor Fletcher’s blog exploring whether there is promise in a global plastics pact

An innovative solution to plastic recycling

Our Innovation Fellow, Rory Miles, focused on solutions for end-of-life plastics. He explained how the Centre for Enzyme Innovation (CEI) has been established to develop industry-ready bio-recycling solutions, whereby enzymes can be used to break down plastic (polymers) into its original building blocks (monomers), as explained in this short video. 

WATCH | Could bacteria help beat the world’s plastic problem?
Centre for Enzyme Innovation (CEI) director Professor John McGeehan talks about his team's research – and how it can make recycling easier

Thanks to funding from the Solent Local Enterprise Partnership through the government’s “Getting Building Fund”, we’ll be opening a new Industrial Engagement Hub at the University in 2022. This will allow the CEI to expand its activity and collaborate with partners to accelerate the scaling of such technologies to an industrial level. This future-focused approach could work to develop enzyme-enabled recycling solutions for mixed waste streams, composite plastics and textile waste. 

Although further research is required, enzymatic recycling offers the potential to produce polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastics at the same cost as using virgin plastics, while requiring less energy and generating fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Preliminary results of an analysis of advanced PET recycling technologies was presented by CEI research partner, Dr Gregg Beckham, Senior Research Fellow at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. 

If you're a commercial or academic organisation interested in working with the CEI, please contact Rory.Miles@port.ac.uk


As part of Revolution Plastics, we want to forge partnerships with business, government, the not-for-profit sector and academia around the world to work together to transform the way we make, use and dispose of plastics. If you’d like to collaborate with us, please contact us to find out more.

About GRIPS

The Global Research and Innovation in Plastics Sustainability (GRIPS) is hosted by the UK Circular Plastics Network (UKCNP), organised by KTN and supported by Innovate UK, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and UK Research Innovation (UKRI).

Recorded sessions from the conference are available to watch on the KTN website.

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