What to do about plastics?

Carbon clarity in the global petrochemical supply chain.

  • Mon 29th Apr 2024
  • 19:30-21:00
  • Wolfson Lecture Theatre, Churchill College, Storey's Way, Cambridge, CB3 0DS and Zoom
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Plastics are ubiquitous in modern society. The attractiveness and popularity of plastics stems from their range of properties, their cost-effectiveness and the utility they deliver in society. Plastic production grew rapidly from the 1950s, driven by an ever-increasing range of new polymer materials with exceptional properties—being strong, lightweight, durable, and low-cost—and the many new products on offer. However, rising demand for plastics and the sheer diversity of plastic products available make action to achieve net zero emission targets especially challenging and pressing.

Plastics are hard to live with and hard to live without. The positive social and economic impacts of the petrochemical sector are accompanied by a huge environmental burden. Today, we make about 420 Mt of plastic products, resulting in 1.8 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, or 3.4% of global emissions. By 2060, emissions from the plastics lifecycle are set to more than double, reaching 4.3 billion tonnes of GHG emissions. Climate action requires a radical new relationship between consumers and plastic manufacturers.

What to do about plastics? This talk draws from five years of research at Cambridge, aimed at understanding the GHG impact of plastics across the full lifecycle (production, use and disposal) and exploring all possible options for mitigating the carbon impacts of plastics production.

Professor Jonathan Cullen, Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge


Jonathan Cullen is the Professor of Sustainable Engineering at the University of Cambridge and the President of Fitzwilliam College. He leads the Resource Efficiency Collective (www.refficiency.org) and has a reputation for top-down studies of resource systems, bringing skills in developing new metrics to reflect both energy and emissions consequences of materials production. Jonathan currently leads C-THRU: carbon clarity in the global petrochemical supply chain (VKRF), and is a co-investigator on: S2uPPlant: Smart Sustainable Plastic Packaging from Plants (UKRI), TransFIRe: Foundation Industries Research and Innovation Hub (UKRI), UK FIRES: Locating Resource Efficiency at the heart of Future Industrial Strategy (EPSRC), CCG: Climate Compatible Growth (FCDO). He is a Lead Author for the IPCC AR6 Industry Chapter, an Expert Adviser to the IEA Technology Roadmaps, and co-authored the book Sustainable Materials: with both eyes open, which pioneered the concept of material efficiency for energy-intensive industries.

Attending lectures

The lecture will be preceded by a short presentation from a CSAR PhD Award Winner (via Zoom).

Modelling progressive multiple sclerosis in a dish using iNSC technology.

Ms Rosana-Bristena Ionescu MD, Department of Clinical Neurosciences, University of Cambridge

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