Smart sustainable plastic packaging challenge

Fruit in plastic containers on supermarket shelf

The smart sustainable plastic packaging (SSPP) challenge is working to make plastic packaging fit for a sustainable future.

As a £60 million five-year programme, it is the largest and most ambitious UK government investment to date in sustainable plastics research and innovation. It reflects the urgent need for action to reduce the environmental footprint of plastics and eradicate plastic pollution.

The challenge brings together academia and industry, and is underpinned by the delivery of the 2025 UK Plastics Pact targets. SSPP’s ambition is to establish the UK as a leading innovator in smart and sustainable plastic packaging for consumer products. This will drive cleaner growth across the supply chain, and deliver a dramatic reduction in plastic waste entering the environment by 2025.

It is delivering on these aims by:

  • funding and directing research and innovation to develop more sustainable plastic packaging materials and designs. It enables new recycling processes and infrastructure to be developed at scale, and supports meaningful reductions in plastics packaging by tackling barriers to mainstreaming reuse and refill
  • stimulating collaboration and innovation in integrated circular supply chains. It tackles key constraints to system change, and uses multidisciplinary insights to catalyse positive shifts in consumer behaviour to reduce the environmental impacts of plastic packaging
  • disseminating knowledge and learning from funded projects to shape and underpin the development of a more sustainable plastic packaging supply chain.

Seven funding competitions, 57 projects

With seven funding competitions completed, the SSPP challenge now has a balanced portfolio of 57 projects, ranging from:

  • feasibility studies
  • academic research
  • business-led research and development (R&D)
  • late-stage large scale demonstrators.

It is supporting innovation across all the key areas of the waste hierarchy for fossil-based plastics. It reflects the imperative for multiple interventions to bring about system change to change our relationship with, and management of, plastic packaging.

The programme also has a target of £149 million match funding from industry. Indications are that it may raise 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.

Read Challenge Director Dr Paul Davidson’s blog exploring in more detail some of the main issues and challenges around plastic packaging.

Projects funded so far

Large-scale demonstrator II and business-led R&D projects

In March 2022, the challenge announced its final investment of £30 million. The result of two funding competitions, the successful projects comprised five large-scale demonstrator projects and 13 business-led research and development projects.

The successful large-scale demonstrator projects are focused on three key packaging challenges:

  • mainstreaming reuse and refill
  • food grade polypropylene recycling
  • films and flexible packaging recycling.

The business-led R&D projects cover a range of innovative concepts to improve plastic packaging sustainability and support greater recycling. These range from:

  • novel sorting, cleaning and recycling technologies
  • radio-frequency identification and artificial intelligence technologies to trace reusable food-grade plastic packaging
  • new recycling-friendly coatings and barrier materials.

To announce the winning projects, the challenge hosted a launch event at the RSA, bringing together the successful projects and key stakeholders from across the packaging supply chain, including:

  • brands and retailers
  • the polymer and packaging sectors
  • the plastics recycling industry
  • academia.

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

Read more about the announcement and watch more videos about the event and projects:

Large scale demonstrator I projects

Launched in late 2020, this £20 million investment in cutting-edge recycling plants is designed to:

  • support innovative new processes
  • increase the UK’s plastics recycling capacity
  • reduce the amount of plastic packaging waste sent for disposal or exported overseas for recycling.

The innovative technologies include:

  • a hydrothermal liquefaction process to convert waste plastic into chemicals and oils for use in the manufacture of new plastic and other materials
  • a thermal cracking procedure to transform end-of-life plastics into hydrocarbon oil that can be used in plastic production
  • a depolymerising facility that extracts colour from plastic waste allowing easier reuse.

Case study: ReNew ELP

ReNew ELP is an advanced plastic recycling solution that could divert difficult-to-recycle plastic packaging from landfill and incineration into recycling.

ReNew ELP is developing the world’s first site to use the hydrothermal upgrading process HydroPRSTM (Hydrothermal Plastic Recycling Solution). This innovative process has been developed to convert any plastic packaging waste into shorter chain hydrocarbons that form the building blocks for new plastics and other products. This even includes packaging formats that have traditionally been difficult to recycle such as flexible and multi-layered films.

Credit: ReNew

This innovative process offers a better end-of-life outcome for plastic packaging that would otherwise be consigned to disposal in landfill or incineration. It offers the opportunity for the recycled polymer to go back into the production of new food-grade packaging, a limitation of most mechanical sorting processes due to food contamination.

The project, led by ReNew ELP, received £4.4 million in funding from the SSPP challenge. It is supporting the building of a commercial-scale plant in Teesside where, in the longer term, the aim is to process up to 80,000 tonnes per year of waste plastic.

Read more about the ReNew project.

Enabling research

£8 million in funding has been awarded for 10 university-led projects. The projects aim to find solutions to existing issues with plastic packaging to reduce plastic pollution and unlock 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 and address key barriers.

The winners are delivering innovative research projects, including:

  • increasing the use of compostable plastic
  • utilising smart technology to change the way takeaway food is packaged
  • creating new circular approaches to plastic waste management.

Read more about the enabling research projects.

Watch the Strathclyde video.

Future plastic packaging solutions

Almost £2 million has been given to 14 projects happening across the UK to address consumer problems with plastic packaging. These projects will develop better options for future plastic packaging, whether in the kitchen, the bathroom or on the move.

Projects include a number of new bio-based, high-performance polymers which have the potential to replace the current oil-based plastic packaging materials in multiple applications for everyday consumer products. Funding will also help prototype new cleaning product ranges in reusable and refillable packaging, which, when disposed of, will result in significantly lower CO2 emissions than single-use alternatives.

Read more about the future plastics packaging projects.

Other funded projects

Feasibility studies for demonstrators

£235,000 has been allocated to support projects that aim to reduce plastic waste and improve the UK’s recycling capability so they can take their first steps to becoming demonstrator projects in the future. The innovations being explored include:

Credit: Notpla

  • trialling the industrial scale use of a seaweed-based alternative to plastic laminates in the paper and board industry
  • trialling a new mechanical separation technique for waste plastic films
  • exploring the feasibility of refill systems and reusable packaging to enable retailers to implement and scale bulk (zero packaging) solutions and eliminate single use plastics.

Read more about the feasibility studies for demonstrators.

Feasibility studies and industrial research

£175,000 has been awarded for feasibility studies that are intended to lead to larger scale projects for future plastic packaging solutions, including:

  • development and trialling of a digitally-enabled reusable lunchbox in a scheme that rewards sustainable behaviours and replaces single-use plastic packaging
  • the assessment of a new supercritical water technology solution to enable the recycling of common single-use packaging plastics
  • creation of an easily adoptable Open Data Standard (ODS) for a digital passport for packaging items combined with software to allow track and trace capability and reduce leakage into the environment.

Read more about the feasibility studies and industrial research.

International projects: India Plastics Pact

The SSPP challenge has supported the delivery of the India Plastic Pact, 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 is now exploring the development of further pacts in Latin America.

Find out more about the India Plastics Pact.

CEFLEX: flexible packaging design testing programme

The challenge has co-funded the Circular Economy for Flexible Packaging (CEFLEX) initiative. This 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. The £500,000 SSPP funding will support a comprehensive testing programme to underpin CEFLEX’s ‘designing for a circular economy’ guidelines.

Last updated: 5 May 2022

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