4th April 2022 – “Neofossils: Plastic and Carbon Sequestration” Anthony Ryan OBE FRSC

Tony Ryan has been Professor of Physical Chemistry and Sustainability Leader at Sheffield University since 1997   and the founding Director of The Grantham Centre for Sustainable Studies since 2008.  Since graduating with a BSc Degree in Physical Science in 1988 from UMIST he has had a distinguished career in an area of Science now increasingly coming to the fore.  Putin, Ukraine and the implications for energy security aside, concerns over climate change, atmospheric and environmental pollution (and their effects on health and food chains) caused by the burning of fossil fuels and use of single use plastics, have now reached the top of both the international (Glasgow COP 26 )and local agendas.

[ Plastic polluted Beach]

Plastics ln general have developed a bad reputation -especially the single use variety.  But we should remember that they have had a positive impact on our way of life: supermarket packaging and preservation of time -saving ready foods, car and consumer goods, manufacturing generally, and medical applications.  All of us would miss our Covid face masks and test kits; and those of us with knee or hip replacements our polymers.  Things have moved on since the Bakelite telephone: We were shown diagrams of how the variety and production of plastics –stimulated by WW2- have grown exponentially in our lifetimes and how particulates in the atmosphere have grown by around a third in our speaker’s lifetime.

Tony’s considered view was that the contribution of plastics to p0llution and environmental damage should be kept in proportion.  Only 6% of oil and gas production goes into plastic production, 86% being burnt to generate electricity, power industry and vehicles, and to heat buildings. The ‘Greenwash’ and climate protestors should look more critically as to how and where their vegan foods, including chocolate and 100% packaging, are produced and from what.  It is not generally realised that the energy required to recycle PET and other plastic containers required more energy that producing the product from virgin sources. The additional transport, sorting, storing and processing required is both difficult and expensive and effectively moves the cost from the manufacturer, retailer and consumer to society in general.

We face an enormous challenge.  The production of plastics is likely to exceed 40 Billion tons by 2050, 10 Billion of which will enter the sea and threaten the food chain.  Landfill sites near centres of large populations are becoming scarce and , alongside agricultural practices, are the cause of methane gas pollution.  We need something like a 90% reduction to reverse the ‘greenhouse affect’.   The planting of trees  and restoring wetlands  to offset ‘greenhouse gases’ are unlikely to have more than a marginal effect on gases and even less on plastic disposal.

While, at least in the UK , the proportion of electricity produced from carbon sources is now falling and new power sources developed such as hydrogen, fracking and micro Nuclear plants, the plastics problem, as elsewhere, is growing.  Tony concluded his presentation by outlining his current thinking on possible solutions. He was involved internationally in seeking to bring  academia, business and public policy interests together to tackle an issue where it may almost be too late.   Solutions might include:

  • Burying plastic waste.  Coal, Oil and Natural Gas have been buried for centuries underground.  Left undisturbed, little pollution has been caused.  Plastics should be collected, condensed and buried in old mines or landfills to eventually become ‘Neofossils’ .  We should “make fossils from plastic, not plastic from fossils”.

[Insert Carton showing waste being recycled and buried]

  • A polymer £5 note is worth a penny but is given a legal tender value.  An emission trading system could be developed using a system where emission units have a currency value.
  • Introduce a tracing system so that all deposits are recorded by content, quantity and location.