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UKRI invests £20m to tackle plastic waste in developing countries

Underwater plastic waste

Plastic pollution is one of the world’s biggest environmental challenges. This investment by UKRI aims to reduce its impact on communities and the environment by supporting interdisciplinary research teams to investigate ways to combat or mitigate the effects of plastic waste in developing countries.

An investment of £20 million will support interdisciplinary research that aims to improve understanding of the impacts of plastic pollution in developing countries.

The research projects will draw upon arts and humanities, economic and social, engineering, physical, environmental and life sciences to explore ways to mitigate the impacts of plastic pollution, to enable cleaner and more resilient and productive environments and support economic growth and societal wellbeing.

The programme’s five projects include partnerships with researchers across 11 countries: China, Chile, Egypt, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, Peru, Malawi, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and Vietnam.

Investigating the impacts of plastic waste

Researchers will investigate:

  • the impacts of using plastic mulch films in agriculture on the health of agricultural ecosystems in five countries in order to identify solutions to help remediate contamination and prevent further pollution
  • the sources, pathways and fate of plastic waste in the Indonesian environment, using modelling and systems analysis of socio-economic, behavioural and cultural factors associated with plastic use to inform the development of various interventions, assessing their social, environmental and economic benefits
  • coastal plastic pollution in Vietnam and its impact on aquaculture, tourism and other local businesses, assessing its impact on human health and determining policy interventions that might be most effective
  • the impact of plastic leakage on the Eastern Pacific rim, mapping waste flows, conducting life cycle assessments of materials, assessing ecological, economic and health impacts and testing potential interventions aimed at developing a circular economy for plastics
  • waste management practices in Tanzania and Malawi and compare their differing waste management policies with the aim of understanding the public health risks and environmental impacts of plastic waste in the community.

The Reducing the Impacts of Plastic Waste in Developing Countries (GCRF Plastics) programme is supported via the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), a £1.5 billion investment announced in 2015 to support cutting-edge research that addresses challenges faced in developing countries, of which UKRI is a delivery partner.

Enabling sustainable growth

Professor Sir Duncan Wingham, Executive Chair of the Natural Environment Research Council – which is leading the programme within UKRI, said:

Pollution caused by plastic waste is one of the world’s biggest environmental challenges, and UKRI is at the forefront of funding research to find solutions. This investment of £20 million is a vital step in helping world-leading researchers develop realistic and feasible solutions to reduce plastic pollution while enabling equitable, sustainable growth.

Our investment in international development research aims to positively impact the lives of millions of people across the world and supports global efforts to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Further information

Summaries of the projects

Do agricultural microplastics undermine food security and sustainable development in developing countries?

China, Egypt, India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam

Principal Investigator: Davey Jones, Bangor University (£3,411,319)

This project will investigate the impacts of plasticulture (use of plastic mulch films in agriculture). Its overall aim is to quantify the risk that conventional macro-, micro- and nano-plastics pose to the long-term health of agricultural ecosystems. It will also identify practical, economic, socially acceptable and politically viable solutions to help remediate land contaminated with plastic and prevent further pollution from happening through social behaviour and policy change.

A systems analysis approach to reduce plastic waste in Indonesian societies (PISCES)

Indonesia

Principal Investigator: Susan Jobling, Brunel University London (£3.5 million)

This project aims to improve understanding of land-based plastic leakage into the Indonesian environment and its impacts. It will investigate the sources, pathways and fate of plastic waste in the environment, using state of the art modelling to estimate the volumes of plastic flows reaching the land, rivers and seas around Indonesia.

The project will also examine systems analysis of socio-economic, behavioural and cultural factors associated with plastic use, waste generation and littering. This will inform a programme of research to develop, trial and test various interventions and solutions co-designed with stakeholders, assessing their social, environmental and economic benefits.

Sources, sinks and solutions for impacts of plastics on coastal communities in Viet Nam

Vietnam

Principal Investigator: Michel Kaiser, Heriot-Watt University (£3,559,126)

This project will investigate coastal plastic pollution and its impact on aquaculture and fisheries, tourism and other local businesses in Vietnam, as well as impacts on human health and wellbeing.  Researchers will carry out policy analysis to assess what interventions might be most effective in mitigating these impacts.

Reducing the impacts of plastic waste in the Eastern Pacific Ocean

Ecuador, Peru, Chile

Principal Investigator: Tamara Galloway, University of Exeter (£3,562,137)

This project will assess the impact of plastic leakage on the Eastern Pacific rim. Its aim is to reduce plastic leakage in the Eastern Pacific region, supporting the development of a sustainable, circular economic system for plastics. Researchers will map waste flows across the region and conduct life cycle assessments of materials used in key industries, assessing ecological, economic and health impacts, and testing potential interventions.

Sustainable plastic attitudes to benefit communities and their environments (SPACES)

Tanzania, Malawi

Principal Investigator: Richard Quilliam, University of Stirling (£3,415,446)

This project compares waste management practices in two African countries with differing legislation towards plastics. It aims to understand the public health risks and environmental impacts of plastic pollution (e.g. incidence of pathogens and habitat for medically-important mosquito species, together with the potential for microplastics to enter the food chain via urban agriculture) in two African cities.

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