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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