SOLVE magazine Issue 01 2020 - Page 6

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. Knowledge bank 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 8 MILLION TONS An estimated 8 million tons of plastic waste enter the world's oceans each year. SOURCE: UNEP 1 MILLION PEOPLE Up to 1 million people die per year in developing countries from mismanaged plastic waste. SOURCE: TEARFUND 500 billion The world produces more than 500 billion plastic bags per year. SOURCE: PLASTICOCEANS.ORG 855 BILLION sachets are used every year. SOURCE: A PLASTIC PLANET 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, 6 ISSUE 1 / 2020