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School of Arts and Humanities


Plastic: the new fantastic?

Plastic has become a malevolent symbol of our wasteful society. It’s also cheap, durable, flexible, waterproof, versatile, lightweight, protective and hygienic.

During the coronavirus pandemic, plastic visors, goggles, gloves and aprons have been fundamental for protecting healthcare workers from the virus. But what about the effects on the environment of throwing away huge numbers of single-use medical protection equipment? How are we to balance our need for plastic with protecting the environment?

Released on 5 June 2020, World Environment Day, this new film considers how society might ‘reset the clock’ when it comes to living better with a vital material. We hear how Cambridge University's Cambridge Creative Circular Plastics Centre (CirPlas) aims to eliminate plastic waste by combining blue-sky thinking with practical measures – from turning waste plastic into hydrogen fuel, to manufacturing more sustainable materials, to driving innovations in plastic recycling in a circular economy.

“Plastic is an example of how we must find ways to use resources without irreversibly changing the planet for future generations,” adds Professor Erwin Reisner, who leads CirPlas, which is funded by UK Research and Innovation.

Explore more:

Find further information on CirPlas

Read more about our research on plastic

Visit our spotlight on Sustainable Earth


On World Environment Day, hear how Cambridge researchers are working towards eliminating plastic waste and making best use of one of the most successful materials ever invented.

As a chemist I look at plastic and I see an extremely useful material that is rich in chemicals and energy – a material that shouldn’t end up in landfills and pollute the environmentErwin Reisner Taylor Uekert studies the transformation of plastic waste into hydrogen fuel

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

YesRelated Links: Cambridge Creative Circular Plastics Centre
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Coronavirus pandemic: making safer emergency hospitals

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Making safer emergency hospitals

Simple, low-cost ventilation designs and configuration of wards can reduce the dispersal of airborne virus in emergency COVID-19 hospitals, say Cambridge researchers.

The coronavirus pandemic is stressing bed space capacity in hospitals globally. Healthcare authorities are attempting to add thousands of additional bed spaces by temporarily adapting any available large open halls.

However, large air-conditioned halls tend to have top-down air-conditioning, which creates turbulent flows that can mix and spread droplets containing the virus very widely. At six changes of the air in the occupied part of the hall in an hour, it may take over 20 minutes to dilute the concentration of smaller droplets produced in a cough to below a tenth of their original density.

This, say the researchers, is plenty of time for droplets to travel beyond 20m, putting healthcare professionals in particular at risk as they move about through “a slowly refreshing miasma”.

Professor Andrew Woods FRS of Cambridge’s BP Institute (BPI) and Professor Alan Short of the Department of Architecture have developed a series of practical solutions to reduce the concentration of airborne virus experienced by patients and healthcare workers in buildings converted into makeshift wards.

The designs, released today in a video report, involve relatively low-tech adaptations to ventilation systems and ward configuration, and are relevant for use in the UK and overseas.

“Effective ventilation is critically important in helping to suppress cross-infection, and nowhere more so than in an infectious diseases ward,” says Short.

“Patients coughing or being ventilated will project droplets, some containing the virus, as an aerosol. They are so small that they may take tens of minutes to fall to the floor as the droplet evaporates in still air.”

“Governments, healthcare decision-makers and construction workers are facing an extreme challenge in the urgent need to construct emergency hospitals,” says Woods, Director of the interdisciplinary BPI.

“Our work aims to highlight simple yet effective solutions that are relatively easy to install, implement, service and maintain.” Professor Andy Woods

The team’s recommendations are based on physical laboratory experiments to test ventilation systems for two basic arrangements of beds: what is becoming a standard approach of placing hundreds of beds in an open hall with low level partitions, compared with arranging beds within enclosed patient bays so that, as far as possible, the exhaust air does not permeate the rest of the hall.

In the completely open version, ventilation air (yellow in the image below) moves down to the ground and spreads out over the patient beds, leading to a highly mixed environment. When a patient coughs (red) or releases aerosols, the flow pattern of the aerosols can extend across the space to other patient beds, even to patients across the corridor.

In the version subdivided into patient bays, the ventilation flow (green) still comes down from the ceiling and moves into the patient bed-spaces and mixes, but a good proportion of this air is removed through exhaust ducts located behind the beds. When a patient produces aerosols within a bay (orange), the aerosol concentration remains high in the bay and as air is drawn out through the exhaust duct this limits the aerosol transport into the main space.

“In a large hall, airflows mix up the airborne aerosols all too efficiently and disperse them through the space across patients and perhaps more significantly nurses and healthcare workers,” explains Woods. “A small measure, such as the installation of part-enclosed patient bays with exhaust ducts can help reduce this dispersion.”

“The strategies will work in many different climates.”Professor Alan Short

“We’ve developed viable low energy ventilation models for converted spaces in many other climate regions from Temperate Northwest to the Mediterranean, from Continental climates in China and central India to the Mid-West of North America, Canada and marine coastal climates globally,” adds Short.

In particular, the Cambridge team is working with Professor L.S. Shashidhara, Dean of Research at Ashoka University, and advisor to the Indian government and architect C.S. Raghuram, to create viable conversions of marriage halls and sheds as emergency COVID-19 hospitals in India.

“Crucially, the measures we suggest are simple to implement as part of a rapid interior remodelling plan,” says Short. “Our research shows that a small number of straightforward modifications would reduce risk in what is already a very risky environment.”

How you can support Cambridge’s COVID-19 research

Because of the urgent need to share information relating to the pandemic, the researchers have released their preliminary report now, ahead of submitting to a peer-review journal. However, the designs are based on decades of research by Woods and Short on how particles like viruses are transported in mechanically ventilated spaces. Two key publications:

Mingotti, N. and Woods, A.W. (2015) On the transport of heavy particles through an upward displacement-ventilated space. J. Fluid Mechanics 772: 478-507
Short, C.A. (2017) The Recovery of Natural Environments in Architecture: Air, Comfort and Climate, Routledge, Abingdon, UK [ISBN 978 1 138 65146 3]

 The research was carried out in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Cambridge's Interdisciplinary Research Centre in Infectious Diseases

Water tank experiments were with the assistance of Will Woods and Nicola Mingotti, in tanks made by Andrew Pluck.

With thanks to Monika Koeck (CineTecture Ltd) for other images and film.

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Simple, low-cost ventilation designs and configuration of wards can reduce the dispersal of airborne virus in emergency COVID-19 hospitals, say Cambridge researchers.

Image: Affiliation (schools and institutions): BP InstituteDepartment of ArchitectureSchool of the Physical SciencesSchool of Arts and HumanitiesCambridge Infectious DiseasesPeople (our academics and staff): Andy WoodsAlan ShortSubject (including Spotlight on ... where applicable): COVID-19CoronavirushospitalventilationpandemicInfectious diseasesStoriesSection: ResearchNews type: News
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Opinion: Local food solutions during the coronavirus crisis could have lasting benefits

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British apples by Leonard Bentley on Flickr

British apples by Leonard Bentley on Flickr

A decade ago, food security in developing countries was regarded as a major challenge. The growing food insecurity in the poorest countries was seen a trigger for large scale migration to richer countries, where it threatened human security. It was argued that humanitarian assistance to the poorest countries - through food aid - was necessary to prevent a descent into violence and protracted conflict in the face of poor institutional capacity.

UNICEF and World Food Programme provide food aid in South Sudan. Credit UN Photo/JC McIlwaine

UNICEF and World Food Programme provide food aid in South Sudan. Credit UN Photo/JC McIlwaine

In today’s unprecedented times of COVID-19, all previous arguments appear to be turned on their heads. With lockdown measures in place to control the spread of the coronavirus, food security concerns now beset citizens of rich countries, as they bulk buy at supermarkets to ward off any possibility of going without basic food items.

Examined in relation to human security and international development, COVID-19 is causing a sea-change in the landscape of food security. The concerns of policy makers and communities in rich and poor countries have switched from a primary focus on the global food system, to very real and everyday worries about getting the next square meal in local contexts.

In the poorest countries, domestic migrants have returned home to their villages. Their economies have closed down, and their jobs in urban factories and service sectors cease to exist. Their journeys home have been challenging: roadside eateries are boarded up, and there are limited and often overcrowded means of transport to get from the city to their villages.

Overcrowded transport in India by Prasanta Sahoo from Pixabay

Overcrowded transport in India by Prasanta Sahoo from Pixabay

If there is a silver lining, it is the burgeoning of local efforts that are currently underway - in both rich and poor countries - to provide food supplies to the most marginalised in society. In the UK, there has been an upsurge in public spiritedness, with local businesses and community organisations setting up food delivery networks to get food to households in isolation or with vulnerable residents.

In Asia there has been a rapid rise in pop-up distribution centres, and decentralisation appears to be the most effective way to link farmers’ produce to the people who need it in local towns. The creation of a new ‘direct to home’ model, where farmers become the distributors of their own produce to local households, is emerging as the new form of local delivery to ensure food security of households in Western India. These different firm and farmer initiatives indicate that rural entrepreneurship is developing, and finding new ways to ensure food security in local communities.

Local Asian vegetables by Megan Thomas on Unsplash

Local Asian vegetables by Megan Thomas on Unsplash

Another feature emerging within communities in both rich and poor countries is changes in the ways in which people source food, and in how they cook and eat at home. People are learning how to manage within new constraints. In public broadcasts, the message is to stretch whatever ingredients are available. A new UK TV cooking programme, Keeping Cooking and Carry On, emphasises the importance of creativity in making-do, and changing recipes to use up whatever is left in the kitchen cupboard.

In poor communities in Africa, the breakdown of global supply chains has resulted in a fall in cheaper imports and a shift to local produce. Women trading fish in Kisumu, Kenya, have started to sell local fish from nearby Lake Victoria as Chinese imports are no longer available, and this has increased local income.

Kenyan fish seller by Artsy Solomon on Pixabay

Kenyan fish seller by Artsy Solomon on Pixabay

In Asia, Vietnam is proving to be by far the best country at managing the pandemic. While the international media has focused on its outstanding ability to manage the logistics of testing and isolation, there has been little or no focus on the excellent way this country has communicated to households the importance of staying away from fast food, extolled the virtues of eating fresh food, and emphasised the importance of breast milk for babies.

It is these stories of local, decentralised solutions to managing food security in the Global South during the COVID-19 pandemic that could be the beginning of a new chapter in the field of global food security. All communities across the globe are focusing on their local food security. Now might be the best moment to work towards a widespread understanding of the relationship between food availability and nutritional outcomes.

Eating the most nutritive foods to ensure better health and wellbeing is closely linked to the ability of communities to undertake innovative local agroecological practices. The agroecology approach aims to create sustainable food systems, and at the core of this approach is a set of practices based on ‘locally adapted’ farming.

Kenyan farmer. Credit: ICRAF on Flickr

Kenyan farmer. Credit: ICRAF on Flickr

Working with farmers and their knowledge base, and linking farmers to their local consumers has two benefits. Farming methods are improved, and there is an increasing awareness among local consumers of the relationship between food production methods and improved nutrition and health. This synergy ensures that agroecology has benefits for both food security and sustainability.

In this new approach, improving local links between food production and human nutrition is the first step to advancing human security in communities across the globe. By increasing the resilience of communities, it will ensure that agriculture - which remains the primary source of livelihood for 86% of the world’s rural population - will be recognised as a key priority in international development.

Through the University of Cambridge-led TIGR2ESS programme, we are looking at how to scale up successful local examples of the agroecological approach across the district of Fatehgarh Sahib, Punjab. We are working in collaboration with Punjab University, Chandigarh and with the expertise of the Kheti Virasat Mission, which promotes agricultural practice that maintains an ecological balance.

A UN General Assembly Resolution set out in 2012 recognised the concept of human security as a way to bring together the pillars of international development, human rights and peace and security. Our work is revealing how an explicit linkage of food security to human security can achieve this.

With COVID-19 bringing the local imperative for food availability to the fore, there is a great opportunity to advance agroecological principles. Now is the time for global food security research to make explicit the link between food security and human security, and ensure a more inclusive international development strategy.

Dr Shailaja Fennell is a University Senior Lecturer in the Department of Land Economy, based at the Centre of Development Studies, a member of the Cambridge Global Food Security IRC, and a Co-Investigator on TIGR2ESS (Transforming India’s Green Revolution by Research and Empowerment for Sustainable food Supplies) a £7.8 million research programme funded by UKRI’s Global Challenges Research Fund.

Layout by Jacqueline Garget

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Solutions found during the current pandemic could benefit food security, human security, & international development.

Image: Affiliation (schools and institutions): School of Humanities and Social SciencesDepartment of Land EconomySchool of Arts and HumanitiesCentre for Research in the Arts Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH)Cambridge Infectious DiseasesCambridge Global Food Security Interdisciplinary Research CentreJesus CollegePeople (our academics and staff): Shailaja FennellSubject (including Spotlight on ... where applicable): COVID-19CoronavirusInfectious diseasesSection: ResearchNews type: News
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