The Green Room

I'm an expert on plastics. AMA

Hello! I’m James Comerford, Director and founder of Addible and Enterprise Fellow at the Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence, University of York.

I’ve been an active Post-Doctoral Researcher in the field of Green Chemistry since 2013 and have worked on many different projects including clean chemical processes, green solvents, CO2 utilization, bio-based plastics and new plastic recycling processes.

My interests are very much focused on ‘the plastics problem’, not only looking at the issue from a chemistry research perspective, but also from a social, environmental and legislative point of view in order to understand the big picture and the issues facing businesses right across the plastics value chain.

This led me to start Addible, which is focused on developing solutions for industrial plastic problems and most importantly, bridging the gap between the world of academic investigation and genuine, commercial impact for real world change.

I’ll be here to answer your questions about plastics live on 2020-07-14T15:00:00Z2020-07-14T16:00:00Z.

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Talk soon!

Hi James,
Thanks for doing this AMA! What do you think will happen with the proposed legislation in the UK that is supposed to come in next year banning single use plastics?

Good afternoon Green Room!

And thank you for the first question. . . It’s difficult to say how the impact of Covid-19 will have affected this long term. Although the UK delayed implementation of this legislation, it is due to be imposed in October and will target straws, stirrers and cotton buds. It’s difficult to say whether the UK will widen the ban next year or follow the EU’s focus on limiting the use of disposable plastic products such as polystyrene food and beverage containers, cutlery and plates, which is due to be implemented in July 2021. I suspect if similar UK legislation does appear, it may be tailored to be more sympathetic towards single use items that reduce risk to health (i.e., antiseptic wipes/sanitizing wipes, face masks, various PPE). Having said that, DEFRA have said they remain committed to turning the tide on the use of single use plastics. One use wipes in particular are well known for the issues they cause in the waste system and environment. A potential solution is to change the material used for potentially important, yet also potentially highly damaging products, for example moving from non-biodegradable to bio-degradable plastics (but still, biodegradation takes time and the technology is not a ‘silver bullet’).

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Hi James, thank you for hosting this interesting subject!

What are your thoughts on the increase in single use plastics due to Covid-19? Are they necessary? Do you have any ideas for how event organisers can avoid this?

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Hi Jonny, thanks for joining us this afternoon.

By disposing of contaminated PPE we massively reduce the risk to public health and although environmentally speaking this is problematic, the relative quantities (by weight) is small compared with global plastic waste production. It would seem the impact of reducing risk to health vs plastic waste generation means they are necessary. As always the issue here is not the PPE itself but how it is disposed of after use.

Obviously for anyone organising events during the next few months PPE will be critical. You could certainly encourage attendees to bring their own reusable masks. (I can’t comment on their effectiveness, however they are in widespread use). In addition, collecting this waste at the end of an event will at least give you some piece of mind as to its disposal and although it may end up being incinerated it will not be released into the environment.

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Recycling plastics can often be an energy intensive process, are there any exciting technologies out there to help streamline this process?

Please can you clarify, in layman’s terms, the different types of bioplastics that we might come across as event organisers and how we might dispose of them sustainably (sorry huge question I know :blush:)

It seems there’s a lot of research going on around plastic packaging replacements, e.g. plant-based plastics, compostable, etc, but it feels like each brand is pushing for their own solutions, instead of a global solution. Do you agree?

Hi Team,

Producing plastics in the first place is energy intensive with a CO2 penalty. So although plastic recycling can be energy intensive it is almost always less energy intensive that producing virgin material. It will also depend upon the type of recycling… Mechanical recycling tends to be low energy but gives a comparatively low quality product whereas chemical recycling aims to produce virgin quality material but is more energy intensive.

The innovation in this space is really exciting and the aim of designing a circular plastics economy will prioritise energy requirements.

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What happens to the plastic waste I put into my recycling bin that suddenly can’t be recycled because it’s a special plastic? Does the waste recycling facility dump it or send it to another facility? What happens to rejected plastics (not contaminated)?

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Hi James, What are your thoughts on what can be done to keep plastic in play, make recycled material more available and out of the environment?

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That’s why I think it would be better to have a global solution, where manufacturers, collecting organisations and recycling companies would know exactly how to deal with the plastic waste.

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You are right there are a lot of different bioplastics and more are coming on to the market all the time.

The term bioplastic can be a little confusing as it can be ill defined. For instance a bio-derived plastic is a plastic that has been synthesised using building blocks from bio-based feedstocks. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean its bio-degradable. ie. you can get a bio-based polyethylene that will have just the same environmental issues as oil based polyethylene.

Common materials you will come across are PLA and starch based films and packaging materials. PLA is often described as a bio-degradable plastic so often has benefits over PE films however its only biodegradable in an industrial process! Starch based material on the other hand can be put into compost.

To combine this answer with Ana_Inacio, there are lots of new material solutions being developed however you are right in that there needs to be some structure in the way we approach this problem. Using PLA as an example, if you use this in your event there will be no collection facility for this material so it will end up in general waste and as it will not be processed as it needs to be, it will not biodegrade. So a potentially green material has been let down by the collection process. Which brings me to the next point…

We can develop new green materials however we already struggle with the simplistic recycling system we have. So as well as new materials we need to rethink the way we collect, sort, transport and process plastic waste materials to develop a truly circular plastics economy.

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Generally a third gets recycled, a third is incinerated and a third is disposed in landfill. This is largely to do with the facilities and infrastructure we have in the UK to deal with certain types of plastics. Until recently we have been exporting a lot of this and now we are having to process more material ourselves and the infrastructure therefore needs to catch up.

Hi Lau,

First off we need effective collection and part of that is enhancing the quality of recycled plastics to make them more valuable and less likely to be disposed of irresponsibly (though there is a social element to this, which is separate). When it comes to recycling plastics the elephant in the room is the additives contained in them (such as colourants, flame retardants, plasticisers) as these are not normally removed during recycling and can cause huge issues with the recycling process. As such we have been looking into this to develop technologies to removed these additives and make recycled plastic products that can be used and recycled time and time again.

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Hello James, thank you for hosting this event. I have recently been getting into issues surrounding waste in my country (Thailand) and been feeling quite hopeless as waste management here is still lacking. I’ve seen trucks that come pick up trash just dump everything into one pile, so I don’t even know if the trash I’ve separated makes any difference. As a graphic designer, I would like to bring awareness to single-use plastic/recycling issues. As I’m still educating myself, would there be any resources you might recommend me to look into?

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You’re absolutely right. Even in the UK we have different methods of collection, let alone the rest of Europe and the wider world. Large companies are starting to pull together their resources to tackle these issues particularly marine pollution. In the UK WRAP are heading up the UK Plastics Pact (a coalition of more than 120 businesses, government and local authorities) which is working towards this goal. In addition the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is working with some large companies to make the plastic economy circular, their work is really exciting and I advise everyone to go and check out what they’re up to!

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Hi James. This is a very interesting subject and very topical for my business as sustainable caterers, where we are trying to minimise plastics in our work. Are you aware of any good alternatives to cling film for the catering industry including products in development which might be close to being released on the market?

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Hi Chalisa,

Many thanks for joining us. Please don’t feel hopeless, the world is changing but it is incredibly slow. Education is key!

The RSC recently published an interesting report on how science is enabling a circular plastics economy… Its give a great summary of the state of play of sustainability in plastics at the moment. Take a read and do contact me separately if you need any more guidance, advice or a chat further about the topic.

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Thanks James, really interesting! In regard to harmful additives released during the recycling process of traditional plastics vs Biodegradable plastic, are there any issues with greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere when biodegradable plastics are composted, anyway to combat?