Henry Royce Institute @ Andy Burnham's Green Summit

Prof Michael Shaver calls on Greater Manchester to provide vision for global sustainable plastics debate

  • Professor Michael Shaver tells Andy Burnham’s Green Summit ‘The economics are difficult…but we need to change the economics.
  • Keynote talk highlights new polymer development and need to recover value from waste rather than demonizing all plastic use

A leading expert in the science of plastics has called on Greater Manchester to provide the vision to solve the global problem of plastic waste.

Speaking to the GM Green Summit, Professor Michael Shaver outlined the scale of the issue, with 40 billion tons of plastic waste projected to be in the Earth’s system by 2050. To address this threat, a change is needed in public attitudes to plastics, in waste management processes, and in the design of new ‘smarter’ materials.

With materials innovation at the University of Manchester and a major policy commitment across the region to deal with plastic waste, Professor Shaver says that Greater Manchester is well positioned to provide a sustainability model for others to follow.

One of the major problems we have is not valuing plastic materials, and throwing them away as waste. In the past couple of years we have a welcome change of language. From going ‘plastic free’ – which, for example, would double food waste and quadruple packaging waste – we’re now talking about better materials, and the smarter use of materials.

Prof Michael Shaver

A Professor of Polymer Science at the University of Manchester and collaborator within the Henry Royce Institute for Advanced Materials, Shaver is leading projects that look at novel ideas for the reuse, recycle, and generation of value from waste.

We need to focus on the different types and use of plastic – to look at what we can biodegrade, reuse, and recycle. Plastics are often in many hidden product components – and the way we treat each one requires optimization. As scientists we are working on new materials to support this, but we need to think broadly.

Although spearheading the design of new materials including plastics that biodegrade more cleanly, and self-repairing polymers, Professor Shaver points out that the answer is not all about new science and innovation. All organisations and individuals need to take responsibility for their plastic use. This is not just individual habits, but the resources we put into addressing waste as a society. As the lead of a new project, RE3 – Rethinking Resources & Recycling – Professor Shaver works with a consortium of industry and academic partners to address the technological and societal sides of plastic waste. To close the Green Summit keynote, he noted the power of collaboration to drive progress.

The economics are difficult because it’s always cheaper to make new products from virgin polymer. But we need to change the economics. At present, consumer disposal shifts the costs and responsibility away from producers, retailers and government. We need to ask ‘how does a city recover value from all plastic?’ The answer can’t be ‘we can’t make money from this process. We have an opportunity as a community to join things up. To recognise this is a global problem, and Manchester can help provide the vision to tackle it.


For more on Professor Michael Shaver’s research group, The Green Materials Lab, visit www.greenmaterialslaboratory.com