Education is key to a bright future for plastics sector


EMERGING technologies and increasing engagement from universities is cause for optimism despite the ‘challenging’ times the plastics sector finds itself in.

That’s the view of Brian Lodge, director of plastics and flexible packaging at the British Plastics Federation (BPF).

He spoke to Packaging Scotland just weeks after Aston University became the 17th learning institute to join the BPF, in a move he describes as a ‘really powerful’ thing for the organisation as it seeks to drive innovation and better educate the public at a time when plastic is not a preferred material.

“Although we’ve previously spoken to universities, we’ve never really engaged with them fully,” he explained, before revealing that the BPF now has a dedicated staff position aimed at driving collaboration with learning institutes.

“We see the projects universities are running; we then introduce them to industry and our members who are working in those areas, and what we find is there’s a lot of synergy between the two.”

Members in Scotland include Edinburgh Napier University and Heriot-Watt University, with the latter teaming up with BPF member Aquapak on a knowledge transfer partnership to provide independent data and findings on the firm’s Hydropol plastic polymers solution.

The partnership with Aston University will focus on practical applications in industry through projects involving bioplastics, innovative plastics recycling methods, circular automotive plastics, sustainable packaging design, and novel polymer materials.

Elsewhere, the University of Portsmouth recently launched the Revolutions Plastics Institute, comprising 100 staff and 20 PhD students, in a bid to respond to the global plastic pollution crisis by recognising the need for novel, collaborative, and transdisciplinary approaches to tackle a challenge that it said ‘persistently eluded’ conventional solutions.

Not only is such research seen as crucial to the advancement of the plastics sector, it also aids in constructive conversations with the public.

“There is a lot of false information being peddled so it’s great for us to be able to answer those with scientific facts and set the record straight… there are some really good people out there who are helping us with that, and we can also showcase companies that are looking at things such as reusing plastic packaging.”

Packaging Scotland spoke to Brian at BPF’s busy stand at Packaging Innovations & Empack 2024.

Innovation was a constant theme at the event, with a host of companies having their latest advancements on show.

Brian explained innovation is traditionally an area the plastics sector has been ‘very good’ at. One advancement driving change in the industry is AI, with the BPF running a ‘well-attended’ online seminar on the topic in late 2023, with another set to follow this year.

“We first saw AI in the plastics industry in design,” Brian added. “We then saw it move into sorting, which is really important because if you can sort plastic into pure streams, you have a much more high-quality material coming out the end.

“We now see it moving into virtually every other area within the industry; a lot of manufacturing is moving to AI-based machine learning systems to improve processing, as well as into net zero-type scenarios.”

Despite such developments, Brian admits the plastic sector is still in ‘challenging times’ – particularly with new legislations such as EPR and DRS due to come in.

“These are all things we need to keep monitoring and working with government to ensure the plastic industry’s voice is heard,” he said.

“But what we’re also looking to do is highlight what the industry is doing – the positive things, the strides that we’re making in improving the products we’re making, the recycling, reducing carbon footprints – all those things and we’ll be shouting at the top of our voices to anyone that’ll listen.”