From its reliance on fossil fuels to the waste littering our oceans, plastic is a problem requiring innovative solutions. Our stories take a fresh look at how scientists and researchers are working to find eco-friendly alternatives and design solutions to tackle plastic pollution, clean our seas and redefine the role plastic plays in our everyday lives. We also cover crucial policy developments and the issues shaping the conversation about plastic.
Since the early 1950s, humans have produced more than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic – the weight of around a billion elephants. About 60% of that plastic has ended up in a landfill or in the natural environment, according to the UN Environment Programme, but that pattern may start to change as repair and recycling technology gathers pace.
New recycling technologies currently being tested may allow plastics such as single-use food packaging, fibre-reinforced car parts and mattress foam – polymers which often wind up in landfills or are incinerated – to have more than just a second life: they can become as good as new.
An estimated 5.25 trillion particles of plastic float in Earth’s oceans, threatening not only the health of marine ecosystems and animals, but that of humans in the water we drink and the food we eat. However, research into the extent of the dangers posed by microplastics is still just in its infancy.
A fashion collection made from the remains of grapes from the wine industry and plastic made from chicken feathers are two new twists on the practice of making new products from waste, and a growing demand for sustainability from consumers mean there could be a ready market for this type of innovation.
Smart recycling containers that reward people for proper use could help drive up the rate of plastic recycling, reducing the amount of plastic that goes into oceans and landfill, and creating business opportunities out of the challenge to cut back on waste.
Milk-based edible food packaging and ready-meal trays made from wood could help reduce the pervasiveness of single-use plastic, a major cause of environmental pollution adversely affecting wildlife, habitats and human health.
Tiny pieces of plastic, now ubiquitous in the marine environment, have long been a cause of concern for their ability to absorb toxic substances and potentially penetrate the food chain. Now scientists are beginning to understand the level of threat posed to life, by gauging the extent of marine accumulation and tracking the movement of these contaminants.
A Roomba-like ocean trash collector modelled on a whale shark and a microplastic filter made from jellyfish slime could prevent litter from entering our oceans and help tackle a growing problem that poses threats to wildlife, deters tourists and impacts on coastal economies.
This month we hear from the next generation of scientists and researchers in Europe about how they’re shaping the future, what they see as urgent research priorities to tackle global challenges, and the impact of the pandemic. From biodiversity to how to make industry greener, and the digital divide to the future of work, our stories reflect some of the issues that will be under discussion at the European Commission’s annual Research & Innovation Days conference at the end of June. We look at the impact of Europe’s pandemic response on vulnerable populations, ask five young bioeconomy researchers what this economy really is and how we get there, examine what new business models mean for the future of work, and more.
How do you design and build a robot that you can’t even see? And what would you use it for? In May, Horizon explores the developing field of nanorobotics and its potential applications. We speak to Prof. Brad Nelson at ETH Zurich in Switzerland whose team found that the nanobots they were working on destroyed the drugs they were meant to be delivering, so are now repurposing them to purify water. We speak to researchers who are using the origami-like properties of DNA to make tools such as nanorobotic boxes with lids that open, and others that have created a molecular robotic arm that can pick up, reposition and release molecules. And because tasks like going into a blood vessel to dissolve a dangerous clot would be ideal for a nanorobot, we find out how scientists are devising ways to enable nanorobots to travel through the bloodstream.
Microscopic organisms known as extremophiles inhabit some of the last places on Earth you might expect to find life, from the extreme pressures of the ocean floor to freezing ice caps. Understanding how these microbes survive by interacting with different metals and gases is opening up new knowledge about Earth’s elements and their potential uses.
A circular bioeconomy – which turns renewable biological resources and waste streams into new products – is at the heart of the EU’s efforts to slash its carbon emissions while also maintaining economic growth. But what does a bioeconomy look like and how do we get there?
Researchers are investigating links between microbes and rare earth elements.
We asked five young bioeconomy researchers to set out their vision.
Dr Kate Rychert studies ocean plate structures.