UKRI Circular Economy Approaches to Eliminate Plastic Waste - University of Cambridge

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: Chemistry


From the news on prime-time television to social media, we are frequently reminded of the need to help secure a healthy planet for future generations. Urgent action is required for waste plastics as eight million tons of plastic enter the oceans every year and plastic pollution has become a serious threat to our local and global ecosystem. The export of British waste has reached record levels in recent years as Britain does not have the requisite infrastructure to recycle its own plastic waste and severe shortages in landfills have become commonplace following China's restrictions in 2018 on foreign waste imports.

This programme will establish the 'Cambridge Centre for Circular Economy Approaches to Plastic Waste' with the aim of forming a globally-recognised think-tank and nurturing a multidisciplinary research culture. The centre will act as nucleus for a global network of partners and coordinate a range of Cambridge-based research projects to tackle contemporary challenges from the manufacturing of more sustainable materials to driving innovations in plastic recycling. This 18-months award will therefore lead the development of a sustainable plastics economy by understanding the local and global distributions of plastics, innovate alternatives to plastics and develop novel technologies for the utilisation of waste plastics.

Specifically, the programme will seed new research discoveries in Cambridge and we anticipate that a suit of potential new products, processes and business models will arise from the projects embedded in the programme, including: 1) new materials as alternatives to plastics in packaging films, 2) methods for biologically processing plastic waste, 3) technology for converting plastic waste with solar energy into chemicals, 4) means for generating electricity and hydrogen fuel from plastic waste, 5) production of high value plastic filaments for plastic waste for use in 3D printing, 6) understanding of plastics material flows within the economy and society, 7) technologies for late-stage marking and coding for tracking of different types of plastics, 8) New understanding of how consumers and the public deal with plastic waste, and 9) new business models for industry to support increased recycling and a reduction in plastic waste.

Throughout the programme we will work closely with industry partners, local government, charities and a variety of stakeholder groups to ensure that the activities are shaped by real world challenges. The outputs of the Programme will benefit from knowledge transfer activities to enable real-word impact by adopting the new technologies and approaches in support of circular economy approaches to eliminating and reducing plastic waste. Public seminars and public engagement activities will allow dissemination of novel technologies developed in this project and raise awareness to influence consumer behaviour for improved strategies to deal with plastic waste and implement next-generation recycling strategies.

Planned Impact

We are aiming to achieve significant advances and breakthroughs in terms of the discovery of new materials as alternatives to plastics; processes for recycling plastics; processes for converting existing and new plastic waste into fuels and valuable feedstocks, electricity and resource for 3D printing technology; circular business models for waste management; systems for supporting the sorting, mapping and collection of plastic waste. The circular economy business case will remain a common thread throughout each WP and the workshops of the project, ensuring that the research is relatable to practitioners and that businesses and public services will be able to adopt the technological advances in a way that is economically viable for their organisations.

The approaches pursued in this programme have the potential to make significant contributions to reducing plastic waste on various time-scales; ranging from short-term impact by improving plastic recovery by understanding plastic flows to long-term impact in enabling a circular energy economy. We aim to have clear societal, environmental, economic and health impacts. A key impact of the programme will be to link the community of cross-disciplinary researchers focused on circular economy approaches to eliminate plastic waste to UK businesses, public sector bodies and policy makers with a forum for knowledge exchange and collaboration. Through the various workshops planned as part of the WPs and the forum, we will foster an open dialogue and the diffusion of ideas across the academic-industrial-policy interface. The key aims of the programme will be to:

1. Improve technology transfer between academia, industry, legislators and the public;
2. Increase knowledge exchange through collaborative research;
3. Enhance the local Cambridge innovation ecosystem;
4. Provide global solutions to a circular economy;
5. Support researchers to engage with government departments, policy makers, the commercial, NGO and not-for-profit sectors, and in sustaining community engagements;
6. Develop a case-study of best practice examples as well as a proof-of-concept business case report;
7. Journal articles in high-impact publications according to field of research (scientific/business etc).

Our impact strategy recognises that some of our results, perhaps the most valuable and disruptive ones in the long term, will not fit within a simple linear technology transfer model, requiring significant further research and development resources to establish economic viability or embed the new models and practices in communities and organisations. We will closely collaborate with the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Waste partnership to ensure that our project directly benefits the local community. We recognise the crucial role that will be played by other programmes funded under this call and will participate in national and international events.

In some instances, the research will lead to fundamental intellectual property which will be protected and exploited following well-established technology transfer processes at the University of Cambridge using the services provided by Cambridge Enterprise. We have a strong network of industrial collaborators. These companies will directly benefit from the research results and will be natural exploitation pathways. However, these are not exclusive relationships and we will actively seek to engage a wider range of industrial partners through our forum and programme of targeted workshops. The programme will contribute to making the UK a world-leader in circular economy approaches to eliminate plastic waste.

Outreach activities will also have a high profile. All investigators have strong track records in public engagement and outreach to young people and the general public and will continue to inspire the public at an influential level on plastic related societal challenges and opportunities.


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Description The Cambridge Creative Circular Plastics Centre (CirPlas) acts as a nucleus for a local, national and global network of partners and coordinates a range of research projects, workshops and forums to tackle contemporary challenges from the manufacturing of more sustainable materials to driving innovations in plastic recycling. The Centre brings together over 10 Co-Is from different departments and faculties from across the University. The first Forum, which was a public, outward facing event, held on 14 Feb 2019 kicked off the project bringing together academics, students, industry (Accenture, Charpak, Britvic, Coca-Cola, Hexcel, Samworth Brothers and others), policymakers and regulators to hear the aims of the project, the structure of the WPs, as well as presentations from the project partners: UKRI, DEFRA, Cambridge Cleantech, RECAP and the UK Circular Plastics Network all explained why the project is so important and how the outcomes can potentially impact the academic world, businesses, local and national government and organisations in the plastic/ waste sector as well as further afield.
Specifically, the programme has seeded new research discoveries in Cambridge and a suit of potential new products, processes and business models from the projects. These include new materials that could show benefits over cellophane from cellulose and xylophane from xylan, as alternatives to plastics in packaging films. There has been the development of new methods for biologically processing plastic waste and technology for converting plastic waste with solar energy into chemicals and means for generating electricity and hydrogen fuel from plastic waste. There has been further development and production of high value plastic filaments for plastic waste for use in 3D printing.
There are studies bridging important gaps between the business case and policy research into understanding plastics material flows within the economy and society, together with technologies for late-stage marking and coding for tracking different types of plastics. These streams of research provide a plastics flow baseline from which to assess the impacts of new developments, including new sustainable feedstocks and waste management processes. There has also been new insight into understanding of how consumers and the public deal with plastic waste, particularly lessons learnt from other countries, which will be used to develop new sustainable business models for industry to support increased recycling and reduction in plastic waste.

A detailed literature review relating to the Circular Business Models was carried out. Where the summery of this literature can be based on the following: circular business models can be defined as business models that are closing, slowing, intensifying, and/or dematerialising loops, to minimise the resource inputs into and the waste and emission leakage out of the organisational system. This comprises recycling measures (closing), use phase extensions (slowing), a more intense use phase (intensifying), and the substitution of products by service and software solutions (dematerialising).
Conceptual frameworks were organized according to three different types of frameworks (i.e. requirements, classifications and models/ontologies).
Conducted a case study on Charpak based in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, UK and are classified as packaging converters. They operate within the competitive thermoformed rigid plastic packaging industry. Charpak employs a diverse workforce from the UK, Europe, Asia and Africa. The company employs 132 permanent members of staff; with an annual turnover of £10.4million in 2018. A analysis of the current business model was conducted and examined the different circular avenues in the company.

Some exemplars of key successes:
• Research collaboration with oil- and gas company OMV, which includes the sunlight-driven conversion of waste plastics into fuel and chemicals
• Patent filed & publication on utilisation of carbon-based photocatalysts for sunlight-driven conversion of waste plastics
• Christian Pichler PDRA awarded Erwin Schroedinger Fellowship on solar plastics reforming
• Teresa PDRA awarded Public Engagement Starter grant
• Partnership agreement to launch pilot recycling project in Crossroads (Cape Town)
• Steger Co-I has submitted two applications to the Global Challenges Research Fund

Circular business models: A review

We have been very active with outreach, media and public engagement activities, including presenting at the Royal Society Summer Science Festival, article in University's Research Horizons magazine, BBC South East TV interview and the following articles:
• Royal Society of Chemistry roundtable and report

The website brings together all the key outputs from the project.
Exploitation Route There have been many outcomes on the local, national and international level.
Sustainable materials-We know that the strength and plasticity of plant cells are determined by the components of the cell wall. What is less known is how these structures found in nature can be used to develop sustainable materials. Researchers looked at birch wood cells to develop films that could replace non-recyclable plastic food wrap. This opens up possibilities for the elimination of plastic packaging that we currently see blocking drains and floating in rivers.
Recycling processes-There are different ways to recycle plastic waste. One involves chemically treating plastic waste to extract useful elements contained within it. Researchers have found a way to release hydrogen from plastic waste which could be used to fuel trains and heat homes. This process is called photo reforming, which involves mimicking the power of sunlight using artificial photosynthesis.
Tackling the flow of plastics-Keeping track of plastics across the UK is difficult. Many products are composed of multiple types or have plastics as one part of the product, along with other materials. Researchers have found ways to collate information to give a clearer picture of where UK plastics come from and the distribution of plastics across different categories of use. This information helps to focus efforts on plastics that are particularly difficult to recycle.
Biological processes and plastic waste-Plastics are often thought about in terms of the harm they cause when microplastic is ingested by sea life. But there is a possibility that 'filter feeders' could be a way to monitor and reduce micro-plastics in degraded waterbodies. Some bivalve molluscs (such as mussels and clams) can filter 2 litres of water a day efficiently. This work is part of a collaboration with Nanjing University, China.
There has been new insights developed on the cultures behind plastic waste around the world. Finding out what people do in other countries can help tackle problems in the UK. Researchers travelled to interview local communities in Japan, South Africa and Uruguay. Findings showed that, like people, plastics also have a 'social life.' Items like plastic bags have become more than just a way to carry groceries. Plastics items, like branded clothing, become symbols that say something about who we are. But exactly what our plastics use says about us is constantly changing. In turn, so is our willingness to use plastics differently.
Although there are many targets set across policy documents, the ones being used in research with businesses are UK Plastic Pact targets. Progress towards targets for recycled content in plastics is now being tracked using data collected by WRAP from UK Plastic Pact members. Policy recommendation to make it a requirement for businesses to report on an agreed set of metrics and common methodology. This will make comparative analysis possible and enable evidence-based decisions. Avoid a blanket taxation on all plastic packaging made from materials containing less than 30% recycled content. There may be a case to be made for making exceptions if switching to other materials would jeopardise climate change targets. Assess impact on water consumption and carbon emissions before penalising producers of packaging that uses material with a low recycled content.
Exploring the added value of technology- Blockchain technology can solve problems in the supply chain related to data visibility, process optimisation, and demand management. Also, big data analytics enables businesses to measure product demand ahead of production and understand customer behaviour.
Creating more room for innovation- A key recommendation was that businesses need to invest in innovating, both in-house and in collaboration with other universities and businesses.
Consumer awareness is crucial- The engagement of and collaboration with the end user in business to business (B2B cases) and business to consumer (B2C cases) is currently minimal. Companies need to explore new and far reaching methods to spread awareness of circularity and waste reduction.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Chemicals,Energy,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Retail

Description This project (CirPlas) brings together academics, students, practitioners and regulators, also the project partners: UKRI, DEFRA, Cambridge Cleantech, RECAP and the UK Circular Plastics Network. We are organising forums and workshops with presentations to explain why the project is so important and how the outcomes can potentially impact the academic world, businesses and organisations in the plastic/ waste sector as well as further afield. There was discussion in the meetings on the key industrial issues which need to be tackled and barriers to adoption. A survey on the event completed by participants was useful to identify relevant expertise and research questions of interest to industry. Outreach activities to increase awareness in the general public of alternative plastic productions and the importance of reducing plastic waste have been conducted. There was a Royal Society Summer Exhibition stand on natural materials for buildings, BBC interview by James Elliott Co-I on plastics issue. Recycling of children's toys public engagement event. Husmann PDRA led the outreach effort from the Materials Science Department as part of the 'Physics at Work' program at the Cavendish Department. This involved 36 presentations over 3 days to 49 secondary schools on the topic of plastics. This time, plastics from biomass were included in the demonstrations and reduction of plastic waste was discussed which found great interest among the students. In preparing a proof-of-concept report, we are developing a Circular business model that could potentially be rolled out across the plastics waste sector. The impact could potentially be wide reaching in a sector where circular business models are relatively unexplored and there is little guidance for practitioners on adopting such models currently. Our researchers are in contact with a range of stakeholders that provide pathways to impact in different societal sectors. The first of these is focused on bridging the gap among scholars whose research has implications for responses to plastic waste in the UK. Dissemination of research from across the Humanities and Social Sciences includes 'The Social Life of Plastic Workshop'. Knowledge exchanged at the workshop will be disseminated via attendees' affiliations and networks that span the UK, Europe, Asia and Africa and was published in the open access journal Worldwide Waste.
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Chemicals,Energy,Environment
Impact Types Societal,Policy & public services

Description C-THRU: carbon clarity in the global petrochemical supply chain
Amount $4,000,000 (USD)
Organisation V. Kann Rasmussen Foundation 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United States
Start 09/2020 
End 08/2023
Description Development of Photocatalysts for photoreforming process
Amount £80,000 (GBP)
Organisation Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) 
Sector Public
Country Canada
Start 06/2020 
End 05/2022
Description Erwin Schroedinger Fellowship
Amount € 60,000 (EUR)
Organisation Austrian Science Fund (FWF) 
Sector Academic/University
Country Austria
Start 08/2019 
End 02/2021
Description Post-construction assessment of Energy Cost Metric of the Civil Engineering building in West Cambridge
Amount £15,500 (GBP)
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2020 
End 11/2020
Description Smart Sustainable Plastic Packaging from Plants (S2UPPlant)
Amount £1,039,964 (GBP)
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 11/2020 
End 09/2023
Description Solar-driven reforming of waste into hydrogen (SolReGen)
Amount £150,000 (GBP)
Organisation European Research Council (ERC) 
Sector Public
Country Belgium
Start 01/2021 
End 06/2023
Description Valuing plastic: Evaluating the potential to derive economic, environmental and social value from plastic waste in South Africa
Amount £79,995 (GBP)
Funding ID G102646 A19824 GCRF QR 
Organisation United Kingdom Research and Innovation 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2020 
End 07/2020
Title Dataset for "Selective CO production from aqueous CO2 using a Cu96In4 catalyst and its integration into a bias-free solar perovskite-BiVO4 tandem device" 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Title Raw data for article Scalable photocatalyst panels for photoreforming of plastic, biomass and mixed waste in flow 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Title Raw data supporting article: Photoreforming of food waste into value-added products over visible-light-absorbing catalysts 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? Yes