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Published

14 October 2014

New plastics research programme at the idea stage

Mistra is currently investigating the scope for a new programme initiative on the role of plastics in society and as part of a circular economy. The plan is to support research on new materials and raw materials based on clear definitions, but also with a distinct view of system issues, recycling and industrial processes.

Incorrect use of plastic is seen as a growing threat to the environment and our health. Plastic does not readily decompose, pollutes the seas and coasts, and may contain substances that affect living organisms. At the same time, plastic is an indispensable part of our modern society.

‘Plastic has existed for 150 years. It made possible mass production of cheap, durable products. But it has a price, as we’re seeing today,’ says Christopher Folkeson Welch, chemist and Mistra Programmes Director, who is among those who have suggested a call for research proposals in the area.

In late August, Mistra’s Board decided that a working group should explore scope for a new research programme. Folkeson Welch is currently considering the group’s composition. Clearly most of its members should be international experts, to ensure an objective picture of whether Mistra’s initiative can help to strengthen Swedish research environments and make Sweden more competitive. The hope is for new, unexpected joint projects involving higher education institutions and with industry to arise.

‘The working group should preferably be headed by someone who has both a system perspective and in-depth knowledge in relevant subject areas,’ says Folkeson Welch.

Wide-ranging documentation

Parallel to the working group, hearings are also to be held with decision-makers and industrial representatives to obtain as broad a knowledge foundation as possible.

The basic idea is that plastics are here to stay in society, but that we need new types of plastics from raw materials with less environmental impact, explains Mistra’s Chief Executive Åke Iverfeldt. We also need, he says, to be better at reusing the plastic that is already in circulation, so that smaller amounts of new resources need to be added and this will, overall, be better for the environment.

‘That’s an important component of a future circular economy, so the research must have a system perspective. Just developing good solutions isn’t enough; they must be well integrated at a system level — a process that’s considerably harder,’ Iverfeldt adds.

The matter is even more complicated because, today, it is impossible to recycle easily biodegradable, biobased plastics properly with fossil-based plastics. We also still need stable plastics that decompose slowly, when electric cables are laid underground, for example. But according to Åke Iverfeldt one characteristic of Mistra’s programmes is that they both tackle complicated system issues and include research that is very much the basic kind, although it is also intended to achieve results that can benefit society. One key aspect of this possible programme is the desire to strengthen Swedish industry.

Around March 2015 it may be time to present a proposal to the Board. Even if the Board then decides not to proceed with a call, the working group’s efforts will not have been in vain, Iverfeldt emphasises. The work will be an important analysis of a potential research field that can greatly benefit others. All Mistra working groups’ reports are available online for everyone to study, Iverfeldt points out.

Text: Thomas Heldmark, Vetenskapsjournalisterna

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