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Plastic Upcycling Business Innovation Pilot for Thai Local Communities, PI: Professor Steve Evans (Department of Engineering)

More than nine million tonnes of plastic waste are dumped into the world’s oceans every year, but finding sustainable solutions to this pressing plastics problem remains a massive challenge. A team of experts from the Institute for Manufacturing has been bringing together different disciplines to generate sustainable solutions to waste, and this year they used the GIAA Impact Fund to take their innovative approach to Thailand’s plastic-polluted coasts.

Bringing the right people together to solve major global environmental problems such as waste might not sound like rocket science, but academics from the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM) believe that not only is it essential, it’s rarely done effectively.

It’s something they describe as ‘multidisciplinary innovation in sustainability processes’ and for the past five years, Professor Steve Evans, Ian Bamford and Dr Curie Park have been researching the best ways of creating the right mix of stakeholders to solve real environmental problems – from Sri Lankan textile waste to marine plastics in Thailand.

As a group, Steve, Ian and Curie embody this multidisciplinary approach. An engineer by training, Steve spent more than a decade in industry before becoming Director of Research in Industrial Sustainability at IfM, Ian is an expert in business change with more than three decades of business experience, and Curie is a product designer and sustainability expert.

“We ideate, we experiment with materials and we come up with product ideas, and part of our research is about how you bring different disciplines together in innovative ways to generate sustainable innovations,” explains Steve. “For certain system problems, you need to bring multiple disciplines together, because in the sustainability world, the people who own the problem aren’t always the ones with the skills to solve the problem.”

Since 2016, they have put the idea into practice using GCRF Internal Pump Priming to fund a feasibility study to tackle Sri Lanka’s textile waste and in Thailand, where a Newton Institutional Links grant from the British Council enabled them to set up a creative innovation hub – a physical space on the Rangsit Campus of Thammasat University. Then in late 2018, after finding out about the GCRF IAA via IfM’s grants coordinator, they decided to take the approach to Thailand’s beaches.

As Thailand moves from the poor country list into the ranks of middle-income nations, its waste management system lags far behind its economic advance. “Thailand is hugely reliant on informal waste collection. Landfill is often controlled by organised gangs, so there’s little motivation to encourage recycling,” says Curie. “People used to use banana leaves to wrap products, but as they become more affluent, they prefer plastic because it’s seen as more modern, but the plastic waste has nowhere to go.”

Except, that is, into the sea, something Ian and Curie saw first-hand in Spring 2019. “From a distance, the beaches look normal, but when you get nearer you realise how much plastic is embedded in the beach,” Ian recalls. “In the non-sandy areas, it’s even worse. The stone pontoons that harbour local fishing boats are where you understand the scale of the problem – the cracks between the boulders are absolutely full of plastic bottles, nets and other plastic debris.”

The aim of the project was to bring local stakeholders together to generate ideas for turning beach waste into viable products in local communities, and the exercise began with a beach clean. In the space of only two hours, the group of 25 local volunteers, university students, academics, SMEs, NGOs and government staff collected 60 bags of rubbish from a 20-metre stretch of beach at Baan Ampur.

Then, in a series of workshops, the group began to develop new ideas for products based on waste plastic as a raw material. Together, they identified a range of products – including flower pots, paddleboards and compost bins – that could be manufactured locally on a small scale.

The key, says Steve, is the multidisciplinary approach. “If you throw out this problem of what to do with plastic waste, an engineer will come up with one idea, a product designer will come up with another, and a business person will take a third approach. Each discipline is necessary, but individually they’re not sufficient to make a difference at scale,” he explains. “We want to make a difference at scale, so we are working out how to gather different bits of knowledge together to address a particular challenge.”

The outcomes from the workshop were hugely positive. “Everyone recognised the problem, but were waiting for someone else to solve it. Getting them together, introducing our ideas, and sharing what’s happening in other communities ignited their creativity,” says Curie. “By asking them to talk about their own challenges and how to tackle them, it helped empower people. Over the course of one day, we ended up with 56 ideas.”

Those 56 ideas were progressed through further workshops so that the group now has three of the strongest – roofing, fencing and outdoor furniture – to take forward. And while IfM’s formal involvement is over, the team are optimistic that having formed a steering group and support network, the project will be sustainable.

Apart from having to walk away from such a promising project, the major challenge for Steve, Ian and Curie was the duration of the GIAA. “Impact funding is often shorter than research funding, and we had four months to embed ideas that we want to endure when we leave,” says Curie. “This is complex work, so I’d like impact funding to be large and long enough to make it happen.”

Now they know how well it works, the team’s next challenge is to discover ways of scaling the process. “It’s a form of action research as well as impact. You learn what works by doing it,” Steve concludes. “But instead of doing one or two projects, we want to scale it. We want to work out how to do something 100 times bigger without scaling the budget. Those are the sorts of puzzles we want to solve now; the challenge is scale – because of the scale of the environmental challenges we face.”


Funded by: GCRF Global Impact Acceleration Account 2018 University of Cambridge (EP/S515966/1)