SURVIVAL PLAN: The problem with plastic? People

Plastic is great: light, durable and cheap - it’s our attitude to it that’s the problem.

Monday, 16th September 2019, 7:49 am
Dr Rachael Rothman holds a returnable deposit bottle from Germany.

That’s why there's 7bn tonnes on earth and millions of tonnes in the sea.

A £1m Plastics: Redefining Single-Use project at the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures at The University of Sheffield aims to change not just the way we deal with it, but the way we think about it too.

Dr Rachael Rothman, associate director, said: “The problem is not plastic, it’s plastic waste. We have become a society of convenience. And while there are clever ways to recycle it, re-use is better.”

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Dr Rachael Rothman, associate director at the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures at The University of Sheffield.

And local re-use is better still.

The centre is working with Sheffield dairy farm Our Cow Molly to replace 85,000 plastic milk bottles the university gets through every year with 20 litre fridge-friendly metal milk churns.

Academics are looking at the environmental impact of reusing them versus manufacturing and recycling, or burning them, for energy.

“Our Cow Molly is just three miles away. If the project is successful, the idea is to roll it out to other cafes anywhere in the world.”


The Grantham Centre has 157 academics and 68 PhD students working on scores of projects including plastics in agriculture and dentistry, deposit return schemes, packaging and standardised recycling systems for local councils, which have a bewildering array of different schemes.

And it is taking aim at ‘greenwash’, such as ‘compostable’ magazine wraps that need an industrial composter and 'plant-based' plastics which use more resources than the traditional oil-based process.

Dr Rothman added: “All our life cycle analysis shows re-use is best. And the best re-usable cup is the one you already have.”

But while science is important, human behaviour will ultimately decide if we live or die. That’s why half the academics on the project have a social or behavioural science background.

Valuing resources, education, mindset, taxation and legislation will all play a key role in the move from single to re-use.

“We are very good at responding to crises. But when the climate crisis is visible will it be too late?

“People don’t want to be inconvenienced but they do want to do the right thing. They will change if they have the right understanding and motivation. How do we, as scientists and engineers, get the message across?”