SUSTAINABILITY AND THE ENVIRONMENT: INTRODUCTION
Portsmouth is seen as a microcosm of the technical,
economic, societal and political hurdles that need to
be cleared in most countries to stimulate fundamental
changes to plastics life cycles and environmental
management. Portsmouth is responsible for vulnerable
coastal and marine environments, faces rising sea levels
that threaten infrastructure, is adjacent to UNESCO’s
Biosphere Reserve on the Isle of Wight, and has the
UK’s highest urban population density outside London,
with pockets of deprivation and poor health.
There is also a rising level of environmental awareness
through local organisations and groups advocating urban
sustainability, ocean conservation, renewable energy and
plastic waste reduction. This is the community foundation
that the University of Portsmouth and the City of
Portsmouth intend to support and build upon.
An extensive survey of Portsmouth residents found
most people are acutely aware of plastic pollution and
microplastic contamination, along with climate change
and energy issues. Almost all respondents said they
had made some effort already to modify their uses of
plastics, such as using alternative shopping bags, refusing
plastic straws and increasing their recycling. The survey
showed most people are keen to join efforts to reduce
plastic waste to protect their local environment, but they
require guidance, support and, critically, assurance they
will not be the ones bearing the cost.
This is where the science – chemical, industrial,
economic and social – comes in, and why project
leader Professor Steve Fletcher says if the Portsmouth
community can revolutionise the use and end-use of
plastics as part of a larger sustainability platform, then
any community in the world can. “We see this being
a pilot programme for the planet … an incubator for
similar programmes in other cities, communities and
countries,” he says.
Only one per cent of people surveyed fell into
the category of ‘intransigent’ – holding a view that
individuals are powerless and therefore recycling or
changing plastic use and consumption is pointless.
The survey found the main barrier, for the majority
of people, is knowing what to do. People’s knowledge
of the realities of climate change and environmental
pressures, such as plastic pollution, is steadily
increasing. What’s missing are clear, practical, answers
to questions that need to be asked ahead of purchasing
and consumption decisions. Also missing is evidence
that enough key players such as manufacturers,
food and transport industries and governments are
taking a lead.
To address this, the University will position itself as the
broker, providing research support for manufacturers,
users, civic administrators and consumers.
Professor Fletcher, who is Director of the University
of Portsmouth’s Sustainability and the Environment
tons of plastic
waste enter the
Up to 1 million
people die per
than 500 billion
plastic bags per
used every year.
SOURCE: A PLASTIC
research theme and an adviser to the United Nations
on ocean resources, says the Revolution Plastics
programme seeks to achieve a transition away from
unsustainable and polluting practices to a future
in which sustainable plastics manufacturing and
consumption is the norm.
“Transitions are pathways of change that require
social, economic, technological, and scientific
approaches to support the move from one system or
state to an improved system or state,” he says.
“Transitioning to a sustainable plastics future creates
an opportunity to engage with multiple disciplines
– biology, psychology, marine sciences, geosciences,
fashion, food and urban design – and industry and
community sectors, at different scales and intensities.”
Professor Fletcher says this ambition is consistent
with global initiatives, such as the UN Sustainable
Development Goals, the Paris Climate Agreement, the
principles of the circular economy, and living within the
planet’s safe operating space, as championed by the UN
International Resource Panel and World Economic Forum.
The plastic-digesting enzyme
In launching Revolution Plastics the University is building
on the momentum created by its globally acclaimed
engineering of an enzyme that can digest some of the
most commonly polluting plastics, such as plastic bottles
made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which persists
for hundreds of years in the environment. Of the one
million plastic bottles sold every minute across the globe,
only 14 per cent are recycled. Most finish in the oceans,
damaging marine ecosystems.
The plastic-digesting enzyme research was led by teams
at the University of Portsmouth and the US Department
of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).
Professor John McGeehan at the University and Dr Gregg
Beckham at NREL solved the crystal structure of PETase – a
recently discovered enzyme that digests PET. During this
study, they engineered an enzyme that is even better at
degrading the plastic than the one that evolved in nature.
Professor McGeehan, who is Director of the Centre
for Enzyme Innovation, makes the point: “Few could
have predicted that, when plastics became popular
in the 1960s, huge swathes of plastic waste would
eventually be found floating in oceans, or washed up on
once pristine beaches all over the world.
“We can all play a significant part in dealing with
this problem, but the scientific community which
created these ‘wonder materials’, must now use all the
technology at its disposal to develop real solutions.”
The University has been awarded £5.8 million
through the UK Government’s Research England
Expanding Excellence Fund. Coupled with significant
investment by the University itself, hopes are high
for finding a solution to one of the world’s greatest
environmental challenges. The ongoing research is now
supported by the new Centre for Enzyme Innovation,
ISSUE 1 / 2020