South-west can lead the way on tackling plastic pollution and creating new bio economy

At a University of Exeter event in Penryn, Cornwall today an audience that included government policy makers, local businesses, community organisations and campaigners discussed how the south-west can lead the way on transforming our approach to plastics.

The event was organised by Cornwall MP Sarah Newton and Professor Peter Hopkinson, Director of the Centre for Circular Economy at the University’s Business School.

Peter Hopkinson is also the lead for the Exeter Multidisciplinary Plastics Research Hub (ExeMPLaR) which received £1 million of government funding to become one of the leading centres to reduce the devastating impact plastic pollution can have on the environment.

The ExeMPLaR project is about creating a network of organisations to revolutionise the way we produce, recycle and utilise plastics. The rate of plastic production and waste is accelerating at a time when we need to take radical action to reduce, reuse and recycle if we are to tackle the rising problem of plastic pollution. 

The scale of the problem was laid bare by Kevin Gaston Professor of Biodiversity and Conservation at the University of Exeter who talked about the eye-watering volumes of plastic waste from areas such as plastic packaging, construction and textiles. Kevin gave the simple, single example of the plastic pen of which around 30 billion are produced each year and 1.6 billion thrown away in the United States alone. The audience also heard that 20 countries are responsible for 80% of plastic debris in the sea.

Joel Murray from the Defra Resources, Waste and Plastics Strategy Policy Team spoke about the UK government’s ambitions to tackle plastic pollution and the aim that all plastic packaging placed on the UK market will be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025 and all avoidable plastic waste will be eliminated by 2042. Joel was keen to impress that the government cannot achieve these goals alone and the need for communities and organisations to work together to make an impact. There was a similar message from Cornwall Council who has just produced the county’s first Plastic Free Cornwall Manifesto.  

Professor Peter Hopkinson said:

“The ExeMPLaR project is about redesigning the whole plastics system. No individual action or sector is going to be able to achieve the transformation required to eliminate avoidable plastic waste and the damage plastic pollution can do to our environment and health.

“We must collaborate across sectors and bring together the best available evidence and science to create change. We also need to better understand the environmental, social and economic costs of plastic usage. This requires leadership at a regional, national and international scale and we want to create that network of change so that governments, businesses, community organisations and universities unite behind the actions that will make the biggest difference.

“In the south-west, I think there is also an opportunity to lead the world on a new economic model and system that will create jobs and protect our beautiful environment in a new regional bio economy. We have the natural resources, the talent, the capability and the drive to show the world what can be achieved and, at the University of Exeter, we are determined to support that network for change.”

Sarah Newton, MP for Truro and Falmouth, who helped to set up the event and was inspired by constituents and organisations such as Plastic Free Falmouth, said:

“I’m delighted to bring national policy makers, local businesses and community organisations together with the expertise and scientists at the University of Exeter to tackle the scourge of plastic pollution in our environment.

“The event in Penryn, Cornwall today came about from listening to my passionate constituents and a desire to link up the knowledge and expertise of the people in our region with government ministers and officials. I want government policy to be shaped by evidence and action of what works and, here in Cornwall, the ExeMPLaR project is leading the way in redesigning the system to reduce, reuse and recycle plastic – for the benefit of our environment and economy.”

The ExeMPLaR project is in still in the early stages but it is building a network of people across the south-west who can transform the plastics system. To find out more visit the Centre for the Circular Economy: http://business-school.exeter.ac.uk/research/centres/circular/research/