Food packaging among targets of sustainable plastics research

Five ambitious new projects have been announced that will help to deliver a step change in the sustainability of plastics.

£6 million in funding will underpin this work with the aim of cutting the huge environmental damage that plastics cause, as well as increasing their longevity in use and boosting their value.

Led by UK universities, these multidisciplinary three-year projects will target:

  • easier recycling of multilayer food packaging, of plastics incorporated in textiles, and of plastics used in pregnancy and other medical tests
  • greener production, use and disposal of hygiene products such as disposable nappies and incontinence pads
  • the breaking down of used plastics into their chemical components for reuse in producing high-quality new plastics

A circular economy for plastics

The funding is delivered by UK Research and Innovation’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) (£5 million in funding) and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) (£1 million in funding).

The projects will support a more sustainable plastics system and help the UK move towards a circular plastics economy.

Benefits from the ground-breaking projects will include:

  • reductions in waste and pollution
  • less need to use resources such as virgin raw materials
  • a valuable contribution to achieving net zero carbon emissions

The world produces 300 million tonnes per year of plastic. In the UK, 5 million tonnes per year of plastic are used, with 100 billion pieces of plastic packaging thrown away. The EPSRC-BBSRC initiative reflects the need for fresh thinking to make plastics and their use more sustainable.

Disposing of disposability

EPSRC Interim Executive Chair Professor Miles Padgett said:

Harnessing the extraordinary strength and diversity of the UK’s research base, these five projects all address substantial challenges in highly innovative ways. The potential prizes are huge: achieving a circular economy for plastics will unlock a host of vital environmental and economic benefits.

Locking into UKRI’s strategic theme of ‘building a greener future’, this new research will enable a significant shift away from the culture of limited use then disposal where plastics are concerned, and so help them continue to play a vital role in developed societies.

Supporting efforts to reduce environmental damage

Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said:

Plastic pollution has devastating impacts on our environment and wildlife and I am determined that we move away from a ‘take, make, throw’ model and shift towards a circular economy for plastics.

We have already prohibited the supply of a number of problematic single-use plastic items and will introduce further bans and restrictions in October this year. Our single-use carrier bag charge alone has cut sales in the main supermarkets by 97%.

These ambitious projects will support our efforts to reduce the environmental damage caused by plastics and move towards a circular economy.

Further information

Project summaries

Achieving sustainability of absorbent hygiene products

Led by Professor Mark Miodownik at University College London

With birth rates increasing in some parts of the world and ageing populations a significant factor in others, demand is rising for disposable nappies, period products, incontinence pads and similar items.

Exacerbated by a multitude of product types and multiple disposal routes, the resulting plastic waste stream is already out of control.

The Comfort Loop is a University College London project to design a sustainable, joined-up system covering production, use and disposal of absorbent hygiene products in the UK.

Focused on fundamental research with potential for practical impacts, the research will harness the expertise of the NHS, charities, the recycling sector and local government.

A circular economy for medical testing plastics

Led by Professor Andrew Dove at the University of Birmingham

In clinical settings, laboratories and the home, rapid tests for pregnancy, diabetes and other conditions generate huge amounts of waste plastic. Much of this ever-growing volume is incinerated or landfilled; some ends up directly in the environment.

Changing the whole culture of disposability surrounding medical testing poses a unique challenge.

Led by the University of Birmingham, this project will pioneer solutions that aid creation of a circular economy in medical testing plastics.

Working with NHS Trusts and partners from plastics manufacture, diagnostic test provision and laboratory equipment supply, it will deliver valuable benefits for both the environment and the economy.

A new approach to recycling multilayer packaging

Led by Dr Agnieszka Brandt-Talbot at Imperial College London

Typically made from plastic, paper and aluminium bonded together, multilayer packaging delivers excellent product protection and preservation. As a result, its use is growing across the food and drink industry. Lack of suitable recycling technology, however, means its benefits come at a big environmental price.

In collaboration with academic, retail, recycling and packaging partners, Imperial College London will pursue a fresh strategy: integrating mechanical recycling methods with chemical and biochemical techniques (to dissolve glue and metals, for instance). This approach could have rich potential for extension to other waste streams too.

Breaking down plastic waste quickly, cleanly and cheaply

Led by Dr Daniel Slocombe at the University of Cardiff

Recycling plastics is costly and energy-intensive, and also produces carbon emissions. Many types cannot be recycled at all.

A revolution is needed that makes it much easier to break down plastic waste into its molecular-level components and then use these to produce new, reusable plastics.

Led by the University of Cardiff and involving a range of partners, the ONESTEP project aims to realise this vision. It will develop a one-step, microwave-based, zero-emission process that breaks plastics down in a greener, faster, more effective way than currently possible.

It will also demonstrate how the materials recovered can produce high-quality new plastics.

Transforming textile waste into recycled plastics

Led by Professor Chenyu Du at University of Huddersfield

Clothing is a major but often overlooked contributor to the plastic waste mountain. The problem arises not just from clothes packaging but also from plastic’s incorporation into textiles alongside natural fibres.

Separating it out again from these is hugely challenging, with over 80% of the plastic used in the textiles industry not currently recycled.

With key input from academic and industrial partners, a University of Huddersfield-led project will adapt two innovative processes to the recovery of polyester and cellulose from mixed cotton and polyester fibres.

It will also demonstrate how they can be re-spun into new fibres for new textile products.

Top image:  Credit: sergeyryzhov, iStock, Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

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