What is the challenge?
Plastics are to be found throughout society and are an indispensable part of our everyday lives. They are easily shaped, durable and cheap. But almost a hundred years of use of these materials has had impacts on climate and the environment. The earth is swamped with plastics, both in visible form and broken down into microscopic particles in the environment. Most plastics, moreover, are made from fossil raw materials, adding to the problems of climate change. The world therefore needs plastics that will not adversely affect climate or the environment.
How can the programme contribute to a solution?
The aim of STEPS – Sustainable Plastics and Transition Pathways – is to develop plastics based on biological raw materials and produced sustainably as part of a circular economy. Conceivable sources of these raw materials include agricultural products, algae and forests. The plastics developed should have the desired characteristics, but also be recyclable. In addition, the research programme aims to develop an environmentally benign and competitive technology to produce building blocks for plastics based on green chemistry and biotechnology.
Another goal is to explore the use of captured carbon dioxide as a possible feedstock for the new processes. Producing the plastics of the future in that way would have a dual benefit: on the one hand, atmospheric emissions would be reduced, and on the other, plastics could become a sink for carbon.
An additional step in the programme will be to examine policy issues, standardisation, recycling systems and changes in consumer behaviour that will support progress towards sustainable plastics.
Who will benefit from the results?
The programme will produce results that are of importance to decision-makers in business, policymaking, government agencies and organisations. Industrial partners will gain a knowledge advantage in the area of environmentally sound production, making them more competitive in the long term.
In addition, new markets could be created for currently underutilised by-products from the agricultural and forest products sectors. Finally, society as a whole will benefit from there being less plastic in the environment and from the reduced climate impact of plastics production.
“STEPS has bold objectives. The prospects of achieving them will depend on fruitful collaboration across a wide range of academic disciplines and with industry. The programme involves 18 companies, along with the Skåne Region. That shows there’s an amazing amount of interest in these questions and in the potential opportunities – entire value chains are involved.”
Britt Marie Bertilsson, Chair of STEPS