Do biodegradables have their PLAce?

A recent BBC article discussed the merits of both biodegradable and compostable plastics in addressing our throwaway culture. Both the UK and Canada are set to ban single-use plastics in the next two years and alternatives that will not accumulate in landfill or the environment need to be found and established, fast.

With our existing infrastructure, a lot of currently available alternatives to petroleum based plastics are simply replacing one form of plastic waste with another. This is demonstrated within compostable packaging standards – which say that industrial scale composting conditions must be able to break-down the material over 12 weeks leaving pieces no bigger than 2mm. Industrial compositing conditions are far more forcing than household waste, boosting the need for collection schemes to enable such changes. If the plastics don’t make it to the correct conditions then they may simply break down into smaller pieces that are not “composted” and cause more problems than the original.

Its important to remember however that, as with chemical recycling, biodegradables and compostables have their place. The two are distinctly different, and would therefore need differing standards in their widespread use. These materials can particularly play a part in invisible waste streams, such as adhesives and plastic films. These receive less attention due to their difficulty to recycle and relatively smaller size but are a large contributor to our plastic waste problem.

Chemical recycling – all its cracked up to be?

Over 50% of plastic produced each year is discarded after a single-use, contributing to the never ending stream of plastic waste both in the UK and internationally. While plastic remains the best material for the job in a lot of cases, we need to make smart choices with how this is reused, recycled or biodegraded. The GML is an active participator in the RE3 project aiming to address some of these issues in the UK. Currently most of this waste stream is recycled mechanically, which requires separation and is not compatible with all material input – could chemical recycling be the answer we’ve all been looking for?

A collaborative effort amongst US universities recently reported the upcycling of single-use polyethylene into high quality petroleum products in the latest effort to add value to the 40bn tonnes of plastic waste projected to be present on Earth by 2050. This breakthrough has been covered a lot in the news and the BBC asked Mike for his thoughts. Its important to realise the forcing conditions that are still required in this process, with temperatures of 300 °C for over 30 hours, while platinum is by no means a cheap metal to employ. However, chemical recycling, if it can be optimised, could become a key part of the recycling infrastructure in the UK. The process may avoid the need for sorting our waste streams, saving money and time – while converting this mix to a useful feedstock with real value.

Sustainable Social Science at the Interface

A Research Associate position is available for an enthusiastic, early-career, interdisciplinary scholar with experience in investigating large scale infrastructure systems or new business models. This is a unique and exciting opportunity to be part of an EPSRC funded project exploring the circular economy of plastics and plastics waste with partners from academia (Materials Science, Business Systems, Sustainable Consumption Institute) and industry.

You will hold a PhD or equivalent with relevant research experience in investigating large scale infrastructure (e.g. waste, energy, transport), new business models, or waste management. Expertise in qualitative methods, particularly semi-structured interviewing, is a benefit, as is knowledge of polymer, materials or NIR science.

You will be working as part of a large interdisciplinary team, working alongside material scientists, social scientists, as well as business stakeholders, therefore you will need to be an enthusiastic team player with good communication skills and the ability to work flexibly.  Excellent written and oral communication skills are also essential.

The School is committed to promoting equality and diversity, including the Athena SWAN charter for promoting women’s careers in STEMM subjects (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine) in higher education. The School holds a Bronze Award for their commitment to the representation of women in the workplace and we particularly welcome applications from women for this post. All appointments will be made on merit.

For further information, please visit: http://www.materials.manchester.ac.uk/about-us/athena-swan/

Please note that we are unable to respond to enquiries, accept CVs or applications from Recruitment Agencies.

Enquiries about the vacancy, shortlisting and interviews:
Name: Professor Michael Shaver
Email: Michael.shaver@manchester.ac.uk

Well Done Waitrose!

Waitrose is leading the way in the UK supermarkets’ pursuit of cutting single-use plastic waste with their “Unpacked” trial in Oxford.

Packaging has been removed from 75% of produce, with more fragile items sold in cardboard punnets, while flowers are wrapped in recyclable craft paper or in fibre-based pots rather than the classic cellophane wrap and plastic pots. Customers are then offered compostable or reusable cotton bags to put other produce in.

The packaging revelation continues further through the store with refill dispensers for certain dried foods! Not only does this minimise packaging waste – but also facilitates a cut down in food waste, where customers take only what they need, rather than what is available/cheapest.

While this presents a great shift towards increasing the value of plastic materials through their reuse, it is vital that safety standards are maintained. Plastic packaging helps to preserve certain produce for longer, while lots of loose products increases the risk of food contamination. It may also take consumers a while to adapt and therefore the right behaviour must also be encouraged with regards to actually reusing the containers and bags available – not using more each time they shop.

“Unpacked” is the latest in a line of initiatives lined up by the store, with their recent pledge to cut out black plastic, which isn’t widely recycled in the UK. While last year they stopped handing out disposable coffee cups in store.

Seeking Post-doc in Sustainable Polymers!

We are hiring once again!

A Research Associate position is available for an outstanding and enthusiastic polymer chemist to undertake research in the field of synthetic polymer chemistry, particularly in the design and synthesis of degradable polymer architectures for application in formulations. The project will be based in the Green Materials Laboratory under the direction of Prof. Michael Shaver as part of a diverse team addressing academic and industry challenges in sustainable polymer science.

You should have, or be working towards, a PhD or equivalent in synthetic polymer chemistry or a closely related field. Expertise in synthesis and the characterisation of polymers is essential, including air-sensitive techniques, gel-permeation chromatography, biodegradation and/or formulation rheology. You should be capable of working under your own initiative and leading a small research team, so excellent communication and organisational skills are also required.

Apply at: https://www.jobs.manchester.ac.uk/displayjob.aspx?jobid=17323

Rheological Characterisation of Poly(FLP) Networks

Congrats to Utku and Meng for their new Macromolecules paper! This work further investigates the rheological properties of our novel polymeric Frustrated Lewis Pairs.

The original styrene-FLP copolymers were studied, as were newly synthesised FLP-MMA copolymers. The networks formed upon addition of a DEAD linker behave as non-covalent supramolecular assemblies with a high temperature dependence. Increasing crosslink density resulted in a more solid-like material, as did the switch to a more flexible MMA backbone as a result of more facile chain rearrangement.

Group Transfer Polymerization of Methacrylates

Great work by Dan in his new Macromolecules paper! The paper details our work in developing novel titanium-amino-phenolates complexes for the radical polymerisation of methyl methacrylate. The polymerization is possible without the need for a co-catalyst or activator and gives good control over molecular weight, as expected with a controlled radical polymerization. These systems however proceed via a unique bimetallic group transfer process, providing insight into titanium-mediated radical reactions and polymerizations.