A group of volunteers pick up litter from a beach. A woman is reaching for a crumpled discarded plastic water bottle.

However, their widespread use has also led to a significant environmental crisis. As we celebrate Earth Day, with this year’s theme of Planet vs Plastics, it is crucial to examine the intricate relationship between the two.

When managed appropriately, plastic can offer a lower-carbon alternative to other packaging solutions, such as glass, both in production and transportation stages. Plastic is also durable, versatile, and affordable, making it an exceptionally useful material for applications such as medical use. However, the reality is that plastic waste is not always properly disposed of, and even when it is disposed of appropriately, we are heavily dependent on the presence of sufficient waste management and recycling infrastructure to support the amount of material which needs processing and avoid fully recyclable materials, including many plastics, being sent to landfill or incineration.

The Birmingham Plastics Network

The Birmingham Plastics Network at the University of Birmingham is a collaborative effort which brings together chemists, environmental scientists, philosophers, linguists, economists, artists, writers, lawyers, and experts in many other fields, to address the global plastic waste problem in its entirety. Our mission is to shape the fate of plastics, enabling their positive contributions to society whilst minimising negative impacts across their lifecycle.

Our latest report: Policy Commission

Led by Baroness Molly Meacher, and a team of experts, the Birmingham Plastics Network Policy Commission brings together voices from across the plastics landscape to develop evidence-based policy recommendations which aim to ensure that plastics contribute positively to the economy without compromising the environment.

Our report highlights that there is mounting evidence that plastic pollution harms environmental systems and human health, especially as plastics break down, allowing additives to enter ecological and biological systems. However, given that data and evidence is fragmented and often based on laboratory studies that do not approximate actual levels of exposure, the Government should invest in building the evidence base further, with a potential focus on additives.

We also propose that, to take steps towards building a circular economy for plastics, and to support industry to comply with the Plastics Packaging Tax, the Government should consider investments in plastic and waste management infrastructure to ensure sufficient availability of recycled plastics.

Discarded plastic carrier bags snagged on wire fencing in a forest.

In order to enable this investment and research, we believe that the UK must take advantage of its unique position to unite diverse actors through a world-leading national sustainable plastics innovation research centre that can pool skills and investment to encourage co-creation across academic disciplines and industries. Such an institute could facilitate the delivery of these recommendations, and support Government to make informed decisions through long-term ambitious thinking, as well as signal to the private sector that sustainable plastics are part of the UK’s low-carbon future.

As we celebrate Earth Day, let us recognize the urgent need to transform our relationship with plastics. By working collaboratively, we can influence plastics policy through a systemic lens, creating impact for the environment and society. For more insights, explore the Policy Commission report.