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The role sustainable chemistry plays in shaping the planet's future

Updated Friday, 4th November 2022

Discover why research into sustainable chemistry is vital to reduce both the use of resources and the environmental impact of society on the planet.

Find out more about The Open University's Chemistry courses.

Sustainable use of resources must be considered because fossil fuels and other mined commodities are being depleted, and there is increasing demand from humanity. Achieving sustainability involves many challenges, from preserving resources to tackling pollution arising from plastics, persistent organic pollutants and gaseous emissions. These pollutants are ubiquitous in the environment and have been found in the planet’s waters, land and air. The chemical sciences will be instrumental in developing novel solutions to these challenges.  

Currently, there is a drive within chemical research, and indeed more widely, to transition to a more circular economy rather than the traditional linear model (Figure 1), whilst also maximising the use of renewable resources within the industry (United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 12, Figure 2).

A simple diagram to contrast the 'take, make, waste' linear approach to the circular economy.

Figure 1: A linear versus a circular economy (Catherine Weetman, ‘A simple diagram to contrast the 'take, make, waste' linear approach to the circular economy’, 4 January 2016, available here). 

SDG12 Sustainable Consumption and Production

Figure 2: United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goal 12 can be viewed here.

There are many potential solutions to achieve these targets, and we will consider just a few here that The Open University has been involved with researching, relating to metals and plastics. With regards to the recycling of metals, there is much research focused on recovery from waste streams because there are supply issues for a growing number of critical metals (Figure 3) and it has been shown that the ‘UK could recover critical raw materials worth £13m/year from waste electricals’ (Materials’ Focus, 2021). Researchers at the OU have been involved with several projects to produce new adsorbent materials to recover valuable metals from waste streams (Chaves et al., 2022). This has the benefit of reducing the need for future mining and the environmental impacts associated with it, such as deforestation, contamination of soils, pollution of local waterways, an increase in noise level and dust as well as the formation of spoil heaps.
Figure gives a summary of critical raw materials lists reported by the European Commission in 2011, 2014 and 2017

Figure 3:  Critical Raw materials within the periodic table (available at here source Rizzo, A.; Goel, S.; Grilli, M.L.; Iglesias, R.; Jaworska, L.; Lapkovskis, V.; Novak, P.; Postolnyi, B.O.; Valerini, D. The Critical Raw Materials in Cutting Tools for Machining Applications: A Review. Materials 2020, 13, 1377. https://doi.org/10.3390/ma13061377)

Plastics are another area where we need to reduce both the environmental impact (Figure 4) and improve their recycling. One approach is a process termed 'chemical recycling' whereby the plastic is broken down into its constituent chemicals which can then be reused to produce more materials. One advantage is that this reduces the use of fossil fuels as a starting material and provides value from plastic waste within a circular economy. For example, it is possible to breakdown a mixture of polyester bottles to form their constituent chemicals in a stepwise process which facilitates their chemical recycling (Carné and Collinson 2011).

Some of the plastic litter washed up at Ivy Cove near Kingswear, on the south coast of Devon, England.

Figure 4: Some of the plastic litter at Ivy Cove near Kingswear, Devon, England. Online available at here.

Whilst recycling and chemical recycling are suitable technologies for reducing plastic pollution, the converse approach with packaging is to develop alternative materials that have an overall lower environmental impact. This can be achieved by changing the formulation of the material to use more renewable and biodegradable resources, or to include an active function to the material that extends the shelf-life of foodstuffs. Traditional packaging seeks to provide a barrier to the external environment, whereas active materials delay food spoilage by reducing harmful agents such as microbes and oxygen.  

Biodegradable packaging also differs from traditional plastic packaging as it can break down over time into its constituent chemicals without the need of chemical recycling. It is important to distinguish here that biodegradable is an umbrella term for which compostable materials fall under. Compostable packaging is a type of biodegradable material that is broken down in a specific time frame under specific conditions. At present, researchers at the OU are developing compostable materials that aim to prolong shelf-life by scavenging oxygen and preventing microbial attack. 

The feedstocks used for this material will itself be renewable and derived from waste materials such as chitosan polymer, a waste from the seafood industry, and active additives from agricultural processing wastes, thus contributing to the circular economy. A short video by a current PhD researcher, Katy Woodason, and their motivation behind the project is available below:

Transcript (PDF document16KB)

In the above video, Katy discusses whether we can create sustainable alternatives to plastic from food waste.

Sustainable chemistry also appears in OU modules for example students’ synthesis a bioplastic at home using everyday chemicals. They also incorporate a dye so that they can monitor the breakdown of the plastic using a smart phone app.

If you would like to study these topics further then related materials appear in The Open University course S350 Evaluating Contemporary Science, and sustainable chemistry is discussed in S248 Chemistry in life: food, water & medicines and will be in the new module S218.


References

Carné, A., Collinson, S.R., The selective recycling of mixed polylactic acid and polyethylene terephthalate waste by design of process conditions, 2011, Eur. Polym. J., 47, pp. 1970-1976. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eurpolymj.2011.07.013

Chaves, R. M., Power, N. P., Collinson, S. R., Tanabe, E. H., Bertuol, D. A., 2022, Development of Nylon 6 Nanofibers Modified with Cyanex-272 for Cobalt Recovery, Environmental Technology, DOI: 10.1080/09593330.2022.2047111

Materials’ Focus, Critical Raw Materials Report, Recycle your electricals. 7 July 2021, Online available at https://www.materialfocus.org.uk/report-and-research/contributing-towards-a-circular-economy-utilising-critical-raw-materials-from-waste-electricals/ (accessed 23/9/2022)

UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12: Ensure Sustainable consumption and production patters, Online available at https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-consumption-production/ (accessed 26/9/2022)

 
 

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