Tackling the problem of plastics in the pandemic era: Update on the SIMBIO (Social Innovation Management for BIOPlastics) project

As a multi-functionary, low cost, ubiquitous material, plastic has been adopted as the preferred option for a wide range of applications. Recently plastic has become vital in protecting people from the COVID-19 virus. The demand for PPE (personal protective equipment) has skyrocketed in becoming an essential everyday item for key workers and front line services, as well as in the form of mandated mask wearing. Plastic packaging has been a crucial material in allowing aspects of everyday life to continue. The significant growth in online shopping has increased the usage of packaging. Consumers have given a renewed importance to the need for packaging as a protective layer over food products.

The mountain of plastic currently being produced however is one of the most pressing environmental concerns of the 21st century. Derived from fossil fuels, plastics are made of highly persistent particles, from a micrometer to a nanometer in size, which once entered into the environment are an uncontrollable threat to both human health and ecosystems. Humans are exposed to millions of plastic particles from the micro-plastics found babies bottles to our exposure through food and water to being found in the tissue that makes up our organs. Plastic are now ever-present in our environment. It is estimated that there is 14 million pieces of plastic less than 5mm wide on the ocean floor, 30 times more than on the surface with few environments untouched by plastic pollution. The delicate microorganisms that make up the cell structure of life have been shown to carry chemical contaminants resulting from plastics affecting soil balance, chemistry and its microbiology. Whilst the recycling agenda is gaining in momentum and the efforts to ban single use plastic products such as cutlery, cotton buds and drink straws are reducing plastic use, these efforts are just a drop in the ocean. The production of plastic still grossly outstrips recycling efforts.  With the utility of plastic products being further cemented over the course of the global corona virus pandemic, now more than ever a sustainable alternative is needed.

Bio-plastics (bio-degradable plastics) have been heralded as an ideal replacement to conventional plastics. Bio-plastics have the potential to break down within different environments under the right conditions. Bio-plastics can be produced from renewable raw materials and have already proved advantageous in certain applications such as for horticultural products, disposable packaging, catering and tableware, shopping bags, clothing and cosmetic products amongst other uses. Although yielding much promise presently their uptake is low and predicted to represent only 1% of 335 million tonnes of plastic produced annually.

Efforts to expand the application of bio-plastics are facing a number of challenges. There is currently a mismatch between the characteristics of bio-plastics and their ability to replicate the properties of conventional plastics in a cost-effective way. There is some confusion between bio-plastic applications that can breakdown in the natural environment and those that require further processes. There is a need to upgrade the existing biodegradability standards to meet the needs of the industry as well as manage end-of-life disposal is a sustainable way. Given the increasing pressure to find an alternative to plastics, there is a timely need for greater innovation in this sector.

The SIMBIO (Social Innovation Management for BIOPlastics) research project partners 4 universities to better understand how bio-based packaging innovation will impact the environment and diverse stakeholders across the supply chain. Funded through the UKRI Economic and Social Research Council, Coventry University is working alongside Simon Fraser University (Canada), the University of Lodz (Poland), the SGH Warsaw School and Economics (Poland) and the Federal University of Sao Carlos (Brazil) to develop social innovations that will address the environmental and social challenges of bio-plastic packaging throughout its entire supply chain from production to end-of-life management.

Despite the disruption of the pandemic, the project is progressing well. In each of the partner countries interviews are being held with key stakeholders in the bio-plastic industries to establish the application of current standards and perspectives on best uses. This is the first in a series of steps to an inclusive social innovation process. Colleagues in Canada are leading the way in producing a design brief document in collaboration with their stakeholders. This details the results of the first online workshop which communicated the findings of the key stakeholder interviews to discuss the role of bio-plastics in a circular economy, how they are envisaged as a replacement to plastics, their cost biodegradability, standardisation, environmental impact and the active regulatory framework. The online workshop utilised the Zoom software’s breakout feature, allocating groups of stakeholders to focused dialogue sessions. Here, supported bythe visual brainstorming platform Miro, stakeholders reflected on current challenges in the field and the pathways to collaborative working. A horns of dilemma debate then brought participants together to address contradictions, such as navigating the advantages and disadvantages of bio-plastics and how to make bio-plastics cost competitive than their fossil fuel-based equivalent.

This stakeholder interviews has revealed that the challenges of increasing bio-plastic applications in the packaging industry are complex and furthermore the solutions are not clearly defined. The social innovation process of encouraging dialogue between industry representatives is crucial in moving forward. The research team at Coventry University (Prof. Benny Tjahjono, David Bek, Macarena Beltran and Jordon Lazell) are currently developing the interview materials as well as the format of the social innovation process that will form the content of 3 workshops sessions carried out remotely over the next few months. The outcome of this will be meaningful engagement with a cross-section of stakeholders to facilitate technological development in this area, with the social innovation method holding strengths in solving complex, multi-faceted problems.