The workshop brought to light gaps in outreach and public education around recycling, the need for coherent goals for researchers and the need for clear definitions, and the debate around using synthetic biology to reach sustainability goals.

The BBC documentary series Blue Planet 2 was an eye opener for many. The series made evident that the plastic materials we use on a daily basis are not being recycled as desired; only 30% reach this fate. Instead, they are making their way to into aquatic environments and having significant impacts on the health of sea creatures, fish, and birds. And all of this says nothing of common plastics’ origins, wherein fossil fuels are refined to create the polymers that make up everyday items, contributing to global climate change.

A problem of this magnitude demands fresh thoughts to find a more sustainable way forward.

To this end, ScotCHEM and the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre IBioIC hosted a joint workshop, bringing together leaders in both academia and industry around topics in the field of Smart, Sustainable Materials. Topics of discussion amongst the attendees included smart packaging, designing for recycling, new routes to making these useful materials, and “bio-based” plastics; both made from biomass, and also designed to biodegrade.

The event aimed to educate though its technical program, connect through networking opportunities and professional “speed dating”, and to identify the key opportunities and challenges associated with the development materials via a World Café style workshop.

The technical portion featured presentations from the University of Strathclyde, Impact Solutions, CelluComp, Biome Bioplastics, Ingenza, Dupont Teijin Films, and Colorifix, as well as funding information from Innovate UK. Each presenter highlighted how sustainability is being deliberately considered in the production of materials, from the plastics we use daily to textiles, throughout their life-cycle from production to end-of-life.

A lively chat during the World Café workshop resulted in interesting discussions around coherent goals for researchers to work toward, clear definitions for terms like “bio-based”, “biodegrable”, etc., and the regulatory and public debates surrounding the use synthetic biology toward sustainable ends.

In a poignant moment, one of our workshop attendees noted a significant issue associated with recycling of plastic materials— the person in the supply chain with the least knowledge about plastics is charged with carrying the heaviest burden when it comes to recycling. This comment brought to light gaps in outreach and public education in the areas of recycling and bioplastics, which participant and IBioIC member Biome Bioplastics have sought to address in a recent series of videos titled “Rethink Plastic, #ThinkBioplastic”.

Overall, the event brought together 53 of the brightest minds in this field to conceptualize solutions that address this significant global issue.

For more information on events hosted by ScotCHEM and IBioIC, please visit their respective websites.