Area of investment and support

Area of investment and support: Smart sustainable plastic packaging

With a portfolio of over 70 funded projects, the SSPP challenge is the largest and most ambitious UK government investment to date in sustainable plastics research and innovation, driving cleaner growth across the UK’s plastics, packaging and retail supply chains.

Budget:
£60 million
Duration:
From 2019 to 2025
Partners involved:
Innovate UK (lead), Natural Environment Research Council (Enabling Research Programme only)

The scope and what we're doing

The Smart Sustainable Plastic Packaging Challenge (SSPP) is contributing to the UK’s drive for clean growth and industrial decarbonisation by funding ground-breaking research and innovation to make plastic packaging fit for a sustainable future. It aims to:

  • deliver a reduction in unnecessary and single-use plastic packaging
  • increase the viability and uptake of reuse and refill systems
  • support new and improved recycling technologies and systems

The Challenge directly supports the 2025 targets in the UK Plastics Pact, which includes many of the UK’s major brands, retailers and plastic packaging suppliers among its signatories. Taking a collaborative, cross-sector approach, it brings together academia, industry and the third sector to tackle the technical, commercial and behavioural challenges associated with plastic packaging waste.

The £60 million funding has to date secured over £149 million in match funding from industry and, in total, is expected to leverage in excess of £220 million in co-investment, demonstrating significant supply chain engagement and support. It is also contributing to the creation of new jobs and skills across the UK, supporting the green skills and levelling up agendas.

Funding allocation

Eight funding competitions have been completed and the Challenge now has a balanced portfolio of over 80 projects, encompassing:

  • projects funded through a competitive process, including feasibility studies, academic and business-led research, and late-stage large-scale demonstrator plants
  • direct funding awards, including the funding of an agenda-setting Fellowship in partnership with NERC to support the achievement of the objectives of the UN Treaty to end plastic pollution

Priority areas

Key priorities for the Challenge in 2023 to 2024.

Reuse and refill

Mainstreaming reuse and refill models is recognised as one of the tougher challenges to crack, with a number of barriers including price and optimization in the retail environment, consumer engagement, logistics, tracking, and cleaning. SSPP is funding number of projects – from major in-store trials to packaging tracking technology and consumer research – to move this agenda forward.

Food-grade recycling

With the UK Plastic Packaging Tax driving up recycled content, the SSPP Challenge has funded a number of potential breakthroughs in high quality food-grade plastics recycling, including the world’s first mechanical recycling plant to produce food-grade PP, which is nearing completion thanks to a consortium project led by plastics recycling experts Berry Circular Polymers.

Films and flexibles

Often called the final frontier of plastics recycling, films and flexibles are under the spotlight like never before. SSPP is funding innovation at every stage of this packaging format’s life cycle, from design through to material innovation, kerbside collection, and new recycling solutions, including an award-winning cleaning process to produce food-grade recyclate from polyolefin film waste.

Current projects

In SSPP’s most recent Future Plastic Packaging Solutions 2 competition, announced at an event in London, £3.2 million in funding has been awarded to 17 ground-breaking innovation projects. These range from encouraging consumers to embrace reusable and refillable packaging to new edible and biodegradable bio-based materials, advanced recycling technologies, and plastic pollution mapping.

Hear more about the event from SSPP Challenge Director Paul Davidson. Video credit: UKRI
On-screen captions and an auto-generated transcript is available on YouTube.

Hear from thought leaders at the event about the key challenges in making plastic packaging more sustainable and how SSPP is helping:

Large-scale demonstrator 1 programme

This major £20 million investment in four cutting-edge plastics recycling plants is designed to:

  • reduce landfill, incineration and export of plastic waste
  • recycle plastic waste into new, sustainable plastics
  • expand the range of plastics being recycled

Case study: ReNew ELP – a novel commercial-scale chemical recycling plant

Enabling Research programme

SSPP awarded £8 million in funding for 10 university-led research projects aimed at finding solutions to existing issues with plastic packaging, reducing plastic pollution and unlocking barriers to create fundamental changes in the industry. The universities are working with partners from across the plastics sector to ensure solutions are responding directly to industry needs.

Large-scale demonstrator 2 and business-led research and development projects

The SSPP Challenge awarded £30 million through two funding competitions. The successful projects comprised five large-scale demonstrator projects and 13 business-led research and development projects.

The large-scale demonstrators address three key packaging challenges:

  • reuse and refill
  • food-grade polypropylene recycling
  • films and flexible packaging recycling

The business-led research and development projects cover a range of innovative concepts to improve plastic packaging sustainability and support greater recycling, including novel sorting, cleaning and recycling technologies, and new recycling-friendly coatings and films.

Video credit: UKRI
On-screen captions and an auto-generated transcript is available on YouTube.

Circular Economy for Flexible Packaging (CEFLEX)

The CEFLEX initiative is a collaboration of over 180 European companies, associations and organisations representing the entire value chain of flexible packaging. CEFLEX aims to make all flexible packaging in Europe circular by 2025 and the £500,000 SSPP funding is supporting a comprehensive testing programme to underpin CEFLEX’s ‘designing for a circular economy’ guidelines.

FPF FlexCollect

The co-funded £2.9m FPF FlexCollect project is the most extensive pilot for household collection and recycling of flexible plastic packaging ever undertaken in the UK. Working with a number of volunteer local authorities, the project is delivering a series of innovative flexible plastic packaging household collection and recycling pilots that will run through to 2025. It will provide a unique opportunity to build vital understanding and data to inform the collection and recycling of flexible plastic packaging across different geographies, demographics and collection services.

International projects

The SSPP Challenge supported the delivery of the India Plastic Pact. India was the first Asian country to develop a plastics pact of this kind. In autumn 2020 SSPP committed £250,000 of funding to:

  • enable WRAP to establish the India Plastics Pact
  • initiate start-up
  • engage the Indian government
  • develop the appropriate targets and priority work streams for India

The pact was officially launched in September 2021 and SSPP has supported additional international work, including the development of further pacts in Latin America and an International Circular Plastics Flagship Competition fund to drive forward international innovation in key regions across the world.

Find out more about SSPP’s international collaboration

Why we're doing it

The environmental impact of plastics

Fossil fuel-based plastic polymers are highly versatile, durable and lightweight. From smart and safe food packaging to the latest fashion, and from furniture to the family car, they have become an intrinsic part of modern day life.

As a result, global plastic production has seen a nearly 200-fold increase since the 1950s, and this growth is accelerating. The OECD’s Global Plastics Outlook, published in 2022, shows that between 2000 and 2019 annual production of plastics doubled from 234 to 460 million tonnes.

The environmental impact of plastic has also become increasingly evident, however. Over the same timeframe, the OECD’s figures show that plastic waste more than doubled from 156 to 353 million tonnes, and the global recycling rate reached just 9%.

According to the UN Environment Programme’s global assessment of marine litter and plastic pollution, anywhere between 75 and 199 million tonnes of this plastic waste is now polluting our oceans and plastic particles (microplastics) have been detected everywhere, from the deepest ocean trenches to Mount Everest. Last year, for the first time, microplastics were detected in human blood and tissues.

With further growth in plastic production forecast, the amount of plastic waste produced globally is on track to almost triple by 2060, and the likely increase in plastic pollution is not the only challenge.

According to the OECD, plastics have a significant carbon footprint throughout their lifecycle and account for around 3.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Climate action organisation WRAP estimates that current plastic production, use and disposal contributes about 1.8 billion tonnes of carbon emissions annually.

Plastic packaging

Approximately 36% of all plastics produced are used in packaging, much of which is single-use. Global production stands at around 141 million tonnes of plastic packaging a year, of which only 14% goes for recycling, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Around a third of all plastic packaging put on the global market is estimated to leak from collection systems, polluting the environment.

At a UK level, research by Greenpeace and Everyday Plastic suggests that households throw away 66 items of plastic packaging per week on average, equating to almost 100 billion items a year.

International action on plastic pollution

On 2 March 2022, 175 nations around the world agreed to develop a legally binding agreement on plastic pollution by 2024. The legally binding UN Treaty to end plastic pollution will cover the full lifecycle of plastic, including production, design and disposal.

The impetus for the historic agreement, outlined in the text of the resolution, was the recognition that “high and rapidly increasing levels of plastic pollution represent a serious environmental problem at a global scale, negatively impacting the environmental, social and economic dimensions of sustainable development”.

Making plastics fit for a sustainable future

UKRI’s SSPP Challenge has created a portfolio of ground-breaking research and innovation projects that respond to this important agenda. Taken together, they have the potential to reduce the environmental impact of plastic packaging and tackle plastic pollution by:

  • eliminating unnecessary and single-use plastic packaging
  • increasing the viability and uptake of reuse and refill systems
  • supporting new and improved recycling technologies and systems

The challenge directly supports the 2025 targets in the UK Plastics Pact, and in partnership with the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) is establishing a knowledge exchange fellowship to map the research agenda required for the UN Treaty to meet its objectives and end plastic pollution.

Opportunities, support and resources available

Funding opportunities

Search for UKRI Challenge Fund funding and wider opportunities related to plastics

Support

The UK Circular Plastics Network (UKCPN) is an Innovate UK KTN and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) supported activity that exists to engage innovators, scientists and changemakers to move towards a more circular economy for plastics.

Register to become a member of the UKCPN network

Resources

Plastics-to-plastics chemical recycling

The chemical recycling of plastics is increasingly coming under the spotlight. These articles written by SSPP Challenge director Paul Davidson explore the future role and value of this family of technologies:

International collaboration

Reducing plastic waste and eliminating plastic pollution are global challenges. The article Partnering up to end plastic packaging waste outlines how the SSPP challenge is part of a collaborative initiative to support research and demand-led innovation on an international scale.

SSPP project outputs

Increasing citizen participation in reuse and refill systems: an SSPP-funded project led by WRAP working in partnership with Asda and Unilever, has explored citizen behaviours around reuse and refill across the whole of the participants’ shopping journey.

Tackling household plastic waste: best practice for a circular plastics economy is a report from the ‘One Bin to Rule Them All’ project, led by the University of Manchester, which uses an interdisciplinary approach to improve household plastic recycling.

Past projects, outcomes and impact

View some of SSPP’s project case studies.

Past projects

Initial feasibility studies and research

The first two SSPP competitions funded feasibility studies and research projects that had the potential to lead to larger scale projects.

Feasibility studies for demonstrators

This competition awarded £235,000 to seven projects aimed at reducing plastic waste, improving circularity and increasing the UK’s recycling, including:

  • industrial scale use of a seaweed-based alternative to plastic coatings on paper and board packaging
  • a new mechanical separation technique for waste plastic films
  • refill and reusable packaging systems to reduce single-use plastics

Feasibility studies and industrial research

This funding provided £175,000 for early-stage projects, including:

  • development and trialling of a digitally-enabled reusable lunchbox scheme
  • a new plastics recycling process using ‘supercritical water’
  • an Open Data Standard for a digital passport to allow packaging items to be tracked and traced for reuse and recycling.

A number of these projects have since gone on to win further SSPP funding as large-scale demonstrators and business-led research and development projects:

Future plastic packaging solutions 1

Tackling some of the most common consumer problems with everyday plastic packaging, this competition awarded almost £2 million to 14 projects to develop better options for packaging used in the kitchen, the bathroom or on the move.

The projects include novel bio-based, high-performance polymers and reusable and refillable packaging for household cleaning products.

Case study: Xampla, a new plant-based, edible packaging film

Outcomes and impacts

Despite the relatively short operating time, SSPP’s notable achievements include its large-scale demonstrator programmes, which are supporting first of a kind commercial-scale infrastructure and trials in the UK, including:

  • a novel chemical recycling plant, due to open in autumn 2023
  • a world-first mechanical recycling plant which is on track to produce food-grade recycled polypropylene, due to open in autumn 2023
  • the world’s largest retail consortium to develop and trial reuse and refill solutions at scale

In addition, a substantial research and development pipeline has been created, ranging from early-stage academic-led research to high technology readiness-level (TRL) business-led innovation.

The challenge also delivered international recognition for UK research and innovation in 2022, including one funded project winning an Earthshot Prize and three out of the five finalists for the Alliance to End Plastics Waste flexibles prize (£3 million), including the winner.

While SSPP’s primary role is to catalyse the development and deployment of innovation in the commercial and academic sectors, it is also providing impartial support to the UK government, for example by:

  • co-funding plastic packaging film collection trials with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and industry, to develop the evidence base and best practice guidance for local authorities on the most cost-effective way of collecting this important but difficult to handle packaging format from UK households
  • advising the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology on the economics of plastics recycling in the UK and internationally
  • establishing a knowledge exchange fellowship to work with the UK government in devising the research agenda required for the UN Treaty to meet its objectives and end plastic pollution

Who to contact

For more information about the SSPP Challenge, please contact:

Email: support@iuk.ukri.org

Last updated: 15 September 2023

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