Fellow appointed to inform the future of plastic pollution R&I

Professor Steve Fletcher has been appointed by NERC, working closely with Innovate UK, to develop a transformative plastic pollution research framework.

Steve Fletcher is Professor of Ocean Policy and Economy and Director of the Revolution Plastics Institute at the University of Portsmouth.

Ending plastic pollution

The aim of the agenda-setting fellowship is to develop a research and innovation (R&I) agenda that complements and supports the objectives of the United Nation’s (UN) treaty to end plastic pollution.

It should also align with UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) portfolio of plastic pollution research.

It will build on R&I funded through UKRI’s £60 million smart sustainable plastic packaging (SSPP) challenge, delivered by Innovate UK.

Impacts of plastic pollution

The impacts of plastic production and pollution on human health, greenhouse gas emissions, and marine, coastal and terrestrial ecosystems are now widely recognised.

The UN Environment Assembly Resolution 5/14 (End plastic pollution: towards an international legally binding instrument) notes that:

…the high and rapidly increasing levels of plastic pollution represent a serious environmental problem at a global scale, negatively impacting the environmental, social and economic dimensions of sustainable development.

Significant portfolio of research

UKRI has a significant portfolio of research into plastics, including:

  • sustainable production and reuse
  • behaviour change
  • business models and supply chains
  • environmental monitoring

However, this research is not currently aligned to a specific treaty or framework.

Understanding how to tackle plastic pollution without causing worse environmental, social or economic outcomes through unintended consequences is a complex interdisciplinary area of R&I.

Systems approach

Steve will be working with the SSPP challenge, other relevant teams across UKRI, and the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

Defra is the lead UK government department in the treaty negotiation process.

He will be taking a systems approach to this complex landscape and will be responsible for producing an overview and roadmap for future plastic pollution research.

Clear picture

The work will provide stakeholders with a clear picture of the required R&I.

Stakeholders include:

  • academia
  • industry
  • policy makers
  • research technology organisations

It will detail the evidence gaps, opportunities and priority areas for plastics research across UKRI, the UK and internationally.


The roadmap will strengthen the science-to-policy interface to support informed decision making.

It will also identify other funding organisations for potential future collaborations with UKRI in the field of plastic pollution research.

Interdisciplinary scientist

Professor Fletcher is an interdisciplinary scientist with extensive expertise in the global plastic pollution crisis.

In his current role at the University of Portsmouth, he has led several key projects in support of the global plastics treaty.

He is a founding director of the cross-university Revolution Plastics Institute, which is working globally to end plastic pollution through inclusive, evidence-based and solutions-focused R&I.

Extensive experience

He has extensive experience with the global plastics community, including working with:

  • the UN Environment Programme
  • the World Bank
  • World Economic Forum
  • governments
  • non-governmental organisations (NGO)

Before joining the University of Portsmouth, he was Head of the Marine Programme and later Chief Strategy Officer at the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) in Cambridge.

Scientific expertise and advice

The appointment will embed high-quality scientific expertise and advice into the Natural Environment Research Council’s (NERC) work and support potential future research opportunities.

The agenda-setting fellowship aims to:

  • build knowledge and intelligence within NERC in areas of strategic importance
  • develop robust evidence to underpin NERC’s current and future activities and thinking
  • deepen relationships with the community (including researchers and wider stakeholders) by embedding expertise within NERC activities

Transfer of knowledge

Susan Waldron, NERC Director for research and skills said:

It is vital that our research is accessible to policymakers, and this fellowship provides a timely opportunity to align to the UN Treaty to end plastic pollution as part of a systems approach to tackling plastic pollution.

I welcome the appointment of Professor Fletcher in supporting that transfer of knowledge between academia, industry and policy makers to strengthen our understanding of future priority areas and collaborations for plastics research across UKRI, the UK and internationally.

Multidisciplinary, multi-stakeholder approach

Dr Paul Davidson, Director of the SSPP challenge said:

We are delighted to be supporting this important Fellowship and to have Steve’s considerable knowledge and experience brought to bear on shaping the research agenda to tackle the plastic pollution crisis.

This complex global problem requires a multi-disciplinary, multi-stakeholder approach and the roadmap that he will be developing will provide much needed clarity on the research and innovations priorities and opportunities to support effective action.

Highly complex environmental challenge

Professor Gideon Henderson, Chief Scientific Adviser at Defra, said:

I am delighted to welcome Professor Steve Fletcher as the NERC-Innovate UK Plastic Pollution Agenda Setting Fellow.

Plastic pollution is a highly complex environmental challenge, and especially pertinent as we work towards agreement of a new global UN Treaty to end plastic pollution.

It is essential that we are informed by the best possible evidence to ensure the treaty is effective, so we can protect the environment from the impact of plastic pollution for generations to come.

Further information

About the SSPP challenge

UKRI’s SSPP challenge is delivered by Innovate UK.

It aims to establish the UK as a leading innovator in SSPP, driving cleaner growth across the supply chain, and delivering a significant reduction in plastic waste entering the environment by 2025.

The challenge brings together academia, the full plastic packaging value chain and other key stakeholders and supports the delivery of the 2025 UK Plastics Pact targets.

Find out more about smart sustainable plastic packaging.

About Professor Steve Fletcher

Steve’s research and practice is focused on creating sustainable outcomes for people and the planet, particularly the interconnected challenges of plastic pollution and the transition to a sustainable blue economy.

Steve has more than 100 peer-reviewed publications and research reports, including for the UN, World Bank, and G20, as well as governments and international NGOs.

He is the founding Editor-in-Chief of the new interdisciplinary journal Cambridge Prisms: Plastics.

From 2015 to 2018, he was Head of the Marine Programme at UNEP-WCMC in Cambridge.

In this role he led a team which provided policy support to develop and implement global conservation agreements, including the Convention on Biodiversity, the Paris Climate Agreement, and the Convention on Migratory Species.

In 2016, he was appointed as an expert member of the UN International Resource Panel, an invitation-only panel of 35 world-leading scientists. The panel provide specialist evidence and advice to governments on global resource management.

During 2018 to 2019, he was Chief Strategy Officer at UNEP-WCMC, which meant he was responsible for the entire research portfolio (65 projects of total value over $30 million).

From 2011 to 2015 he served as the Director of the Centre for Marine and Coastal Policy Research at the University of Plymouth, Europe’s largest research grouping focused on ocean policy.

In 2019 he joined the University of Portsmouth as the founding Director of Revolution Plastics.

There are now over 100 academics working on plastic-related research across the university.

Top image:  Credit: Mario De Moya F, iStock, Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

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