Scientists calling for more sustainable approaches to address the massive global challenges faced by plastic waste have published a call to action today in Science.

Scientists from the Universities of Sheffield and Delaware emphasise the importance of adopting multiple sustainable methods to combat the surge in plastic waste through recycling, upcycling and other complementary routes; to minimise energy, cost and environmental impacts in Toward polymer upcycling–adding value and tackling circularity’.

Following the advent of cheap and available plastics in the 20th century, use of the resource has exploded with many forms of packaging using multiple forms of plastics. This creates massive demand on the production of ‘virgin’ polymer plastic material. Not all forms of which are currently recyclable; and of the ones that are, finding methods to do this that can provide reusable plastic material for use in products again is still limited.

The paper highlights how the pandemic has greatly contributed to the consumption of plastic, adding to the recent demand of single use plastics, including medical packaging, masks and gloves.

Co-author and Professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Sheffield, Tony Ryan, said: “This paper is essentially a call to arms to other scientists in this area to put their intellectual power behind potential solutions to the plastic problemThis is something that needs policy and business models to come together and create a broad multidisciplinary mix. It’s a wicked problem that needs a holistic approach.

“One of the biggest hurdles to overcome around the problem is all of the regulations around the use of plastics, particularly in medical consumables such as devices and Personal Protective Equipment, which were written when single use plastic was at its cheapest and doesn’t consider what would happen to it after it’s useful life. Basically we’ve had 50 years of cultural training to throw things away that we now have to undo.”