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The ESI Plastics and the Environment Program (ESI-PEP) is currently organized around five research areas, each calling for bold innovations in science, engineering, public policy, and behavioral economics to transform humanity’s relationship with plastics.
The molecular makeup of plastics is extraordinarily robust, creating a material that will still be circulating in the environment for centuries or even millennia after it’s discarded. There is an urgent need to engineer new plastics and plastic alternatives that remain durable through their useful lifespans, then degrade swiftly and harmlessly in the environment. The design of polymers also determines how easily they can be reused or recycled.
Despite a growing awareness of the problem of plastic build-up, there is still a critical lack of data about how and where plastic degrades in the environment—especially as it breaks down to the micro scale. Without better technologies for sensing plastics at every stage of their lifespan, it will be impossible to reliably measure how innovations in materials and use perform in the real world.
Powerful and reliable computer models are the key to testing new products and actions for their environmental impact. Better modeling is still needed to predict the dispersion of plastics through air, soil and water; the collection of plastic waste; and the interaction of plastics with ecology and the climate.
While technological innovations can lay the foundations for a healthier relationship with plastics in the future, better-informed public policy is needed to reduce the harms of plastic waste today. ESI-PEP takes a data-driven approach to understanding which policies, incentives and regulations have the largest impact, considering interventions at the local and national level, in the developed and the developing world, and targeting government, industry, and consumers.
The ultimate goal of ESI-PEP is to give consumers, manufacturers and policymakers the tools to accelerate our progress towards a complete “circular economy” for plastics, where every plastic product finds its way to benign degradation, refabrication or reuse. What’s needed is a forward-thinking approach to the entire value chain, including simplifying compound packaging, eliminating excess packaging and substituting recyclable for non-recyclable materials, drawing on insights from every category of ESI-PEP’s research.