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4 February 2015

Urgent need for new research initiative on plastic and the environment

Knowing more about plastic and its environmental impact is increasingly important. It is needed, and both academia and industry have shown interest. A working group is now, on Mistra’s behalf, analysing the scope for an initiative in this area. Their work is to be completed by the end of February and a call for proposals may be implemented later this year.

On 16 December a workshop was held at Mistra’s secretariat on the theme of plastic and the environment from a Swedish point of view. Those who attended included representatives of academia, the plastics industry and the plastics companies’ trade organisation, and also the environmental movement.

‘It went extremely well and there were rewarding discussions among those of us who took part,’ says Christopher Folkeson Welch, Mistra’s Programmes Director.

The idea gained momentum in the autumn with the decision by Mistra’s Board in September that the environmental aspects of plastic were an interesting potential new research area. Plastic is seen as an ever increasing threat to the environment and human health. Since we have used plastics for 150 years they have left their mark on the sea, watercourses and elsewhere. At the same time, various plastics are indispensable to our society.

Systems for recycling and reuse need to be developed further, while new materials that are biodegradable are devised and their usefulness is evaluated. Development of this kind could benefit Sweden both industrially and academically, explains Folkeson Welch.

During the autumn, he put together a five-strong working group. They are currently writing a background document on the scope for a programme call. The group are analysing, for example, the expertise available in Sweden and what its strengths and weaknesses are.

Broad analysis of area

The working group has a strongly international outlook, as well as great breadth: it includes, for example, a marine ecologist and a behavioural scientist. Another member is a journalist, Melody Bomgardner, whose background is in environmental science and who works at the trade journal Chemical & Engineering News.

‘It’s the first time we’ve had a journalist in this kind of working group. She knows a tremendous lot, not least about biobased plastics. We hope she’ll also be able to bring a different perspective to the work,’ says Folkeson Welch.

The working group’s document will be presented at the end of February and dealt with by Mistra’s Board in March. If the Board so decides, there may be a call in the spring.

What are the arguments for a programme call about plastic in the environment?

‘First and foremost, there’s a need. But in Sweden there’s also, by tradition, a strong plastics and polymers industry, especially on the West Coast, and strong research in materials science. After the drug industry’s departure there are also plenty of good chemists,’ says Christopher Folkeson Welch.

Text: Thomas Heldmark, Vetenskapsjournalisterna

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