James Elliot in the lab
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Exciting prospects for plastic progress

Professor James Elliott’s research is going back to the future and has the potential to have a big impact on our use of plastic.

James has been a Fellow at Fitzwilliam since 2002 and is Director of Studies in Natural Sciences (Parts IA and IB) and responsible for Materials Scientists, Chemists and Earth Scientists in Parts II and III.

He is also part of the Cambridge Creative Circular Plastics Centre, within which his current research seeks to develop plastics that are either recyclable or which degrade in the environment.

James, who is Deputy Head of the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy, told “What we’re doing is looking at naturally occurring polymers like cellulose, for example. It’s a large component of plants like wood and can be fully biodegradable.

“Materials made from cellulose would be reasonably durable, like a piece of wood, but under the right conditions they can decompose completely away and the sugars they’re composed of would find their way back into the ecosystem.

“It’s kind of going back in time a little bit, because cellophane, as the name suggests, was originally made from cellulose. Back in the 1920s and 1930s a lot of plastics were made from natural materials, but in the 1940s and 1950s they were all replaced by synthetic polymers because they were cheaper, more durable and easier to manufacture.

“In a way we’re rediscovering the natural polymers, focusing much more on issues like waste disposal and degradability, rather than prioritising durability and cost.”

A close up of a cellulose sample which could transform plastic use

The Cambridge Creative Circular Plastics Centre is a cross-disciplinary group, including materials scientists, chemists, sociologists and engineers, including another Fitzwilliam Fellow, Jon Cullen.

Challenges for James’ research are provided by achieving durability, aesthetic acceptance from consumers and by keeping costs down to encourage production.

There is a necessity to engage with all interested parties, including waste management companies and local councils with their recycling centres.

James knows his research can be a catalyst for change, but there must be appetite from all sectors.

He added: “I personally tend to focus on the development of the new materials and their characterisation, but you just have to look at the David Attenborough programmes to see what happens when a large amount of plastic ends up in the oceans. 

“Food wrap and packaging is one of those areas where those materials could be very damaging to wildlife and polluting to coastlines. 

“I hope my work might have a big effect in due course. We’ve got to engage the manufacturers. We can develop new materials in the lab, but we need to take those out to companies that would then produce them commercially. 

Professor James Elliott with a naturally occurring polymer

“There’s a lot of consumer demand now for degradable products – there are definitely companies out there who are interested in these kind of materials. We just have to persuade them that it’s possible to make them at scale and cheaply.

“Plastics are an incredibly useful material – we couldn’t live our modern lifestyles without them. But it’s true they’ve been overused and misused. 

“We need to change that behaviour, but there will always be a place for plastics. We need to reduce the amount we use and the bits we do use we need to make more environmentally friendly.”

-    James is speaking about plastic use at Let’s Make It Circular in Eddington on Saturday (see flyer)

Let's Make It Circular is an event in Eddington on 20 July
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