Holistic integration of technology, design and policy for a greener plastic future

Lead Research Organisation: Imperial College London
Department Name: Department of Chemical Engineering

Abstract

Addressing plastic waste is rapidly evolving into one of the key environmental challenges facing humankind. It is a global problem, notably leading to an excess of plastic pollution in the ocean and the wider environment. Considerable effort is needed along the entire life cycle of plastics - from sourcing of raw materials to manufacturing, to use and recycling - to create solutions for waste from numerous plastic product groups in modern society from aerospace components to children's toys. Recent advances in marine biology, oceanography and marine eco-toxicology have helped provide urgency to the issue, as we begin to realize the wider implications of excess plastic waste in the environment.

There is a need for solutions to these problems across the entire space of plastic and how it interacts with consumers and manufacturers. We propose to tackle the challenges associated with plastic waste along two general thrusts: (1) resource preservation; and (2) waste prevention.

Resource preservation: minimising virgin material extraction. Within this thread we will focus on the design, manufacturing and recycling challenges associated with plastics. These will include developing new technologies that utilise cleaner and more recyclable plastic alternatives, new recycling and recovery processes, better design of end products (to promote re-use or recycling or improve performance and lifetime) and the development of guidelines to design for biodegradability. Taken together, this will create a new plastic economy, where plastic materials are made from renewable feedstocks (rather than petroleum), are easier to recover from waste after use, can be easily recycled, and are designed to biodegrade once they reach the environment. We will couple this with new product designs aimed to encourage consumers to recycle these materials rather than target them for disposal, by designing the look and feel of the products to encourage treating reuse and recycling as a "badge of honour" rather than a burden.

Waste prevention: making fewer resources flow continuously. Within this thread we will focus on distribution, use and end-of-life challenges associated with plastics. These will include studying how to bring about more acceptance of recycled materials, promotion of the circular economy (e.g. reuse, refill, and the sharing economy) within the general public. This will be a consumer-focussed and policy-oriented approach to rethinking how we interact with plastics as a society. Policy and behaviour changes will be linked to the design of the new materials to ensure a whole product that is both technically robust, harmless, and easy to re-use. As an example, we will determine how best to drive a shift towards plastics-free distribution and consumption of goods, re-use and repurposing of plastics, and how we can encourage plastic recycling rather than disposal. This will require a high-level view of how plastics move within the UK economy, an understanding of consumer-plastic interactions and what leads to plastic waste ending up in the environment rather than recycling bins. This will enable us to develop new strategies to change purchase, use, disposal and environmental clean-up behaviours to improve plastic lifetime and inform legislation and policy changes to incentivise behaviour change by consumers.

We bring together deep understanding of the complexity of the value chain and the dependencies between material performance, chemical composition and environmental impacts. We appreciate the need for societal change, in policy, industry and society, to deploy the right interventions for the short and long term. As this grant would build on robust existing activity at Imperial, our strategy is to propose several small feasibility studies aimed at novel solutions for tackling the larger problem areas and integrating technology development with consumer and policy change, eliminating the current meme of single-use plastic packaging.

Planned Impact

There is intense international interest in finding a solution to persistent plastic waste in the environment that is environmentally attractive and economically feasible. Our project addresses barriers that have so far exacerbated the problem of plastic pollution, with an emphasis on coherent interventions along the value chain. We aim to develop solutions that are far-reaching, such as guidelines to increase re-use, recycling and recovery rates based on knowledge of the constraints and motivations of consumers, manufacturers, retailers and re-processors. The project will contribute technology as well as policy interventions in an integrated fashion.
We will develop new plastic components and composites that are made from renewable and waste sources and are designed to de-structure and degrade in an energy-efficient manner that creates readily recyclable or up-cyclable end products. We will integrate this with novel product designs to encourage re-use, recycling and recovery by consumers. These technological and design advances will be integrated with insights into consumer behaviour and policy initiatives aimed at encouraging material re-use and recycling to prevent plastic flows from being diverted to the environment.
We will address people's motivations and perceptions through activities integrated throughout the project that benefit consumers, manufacturers, retailers and re-processors and increase general public uptake of new practices. A large part of our programme is aimed at developing technological solutions for multi-layer packaging (MLP), which is currently difficult to recycle. This will include advances in the development of reinforced composites made from waste, recycling strategies for waste plastics and the development of recyclable thermosets. These technical breakthroughs will improve overall profitability of the recycling sector whilst increasing the sustainability of fast-moving consumer goods.
The project will also increase quality of life across society by reducing incinerated or landfilled post-consumer plastic and by improving the viability of new recycling processes. We will identify urgently needed solutions for recycling MLP including packaging configurations to improve recycled polymer purity (for delamination via separation) and mechanical properties (for combined processing). One aim is to use the recycled material as the core of MLPs for food contact applications satisfying regulations and preserving the greatest value. This will also help broaden the options for new products and procedures for plastic recycling using novel media to process otherwise insoluble thermosets, compatibilisers and cellulose. This will feed directly to industrial stakeholders.
We will also build urgently needed links between technology advances and environmental impacts to ensure that a coherent set of policy requirements are identified and recommendations for policy development will be made. This will assist the UK's contribution towards relevant Sustainable Development Goals: 9.4 on industrial upgrade and retrofit with increased resource-use efficiency and adoption of environmentally sound industrial processes; and 12.5 on substantial reduction of waste through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse by 2030. For this we will work directly with public sector stakeholders.
The project will provide new scientific knowledge, new methodologies, and high skilled trained researchers who will drive future developments in this field in both academic and industrial contexts. New IP generated during the course of this project will be protected (e.g. new co-polymers and new composites) and exploited through Imperial Innovations. Several team members have significant experience in commercialising technologies arising out of university research. Combined with the social and policy changes, this will ensure our technology development and translation leads to a step-change improvement in the plastic-based circular economy.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description To date, our key successes have revolved around an intensified focus on food packaging and strong interactions with several industrial partners. These initially led to the proof-of-concept studies as outlined in the original research proposal, but later added great value through new projects evolving from discussions with these partners. We have undertaken several challenge-style mini-projects, both investigator-driven and researcher-driven, each involving 3-5 of the 7 distinct disciplines involved in this programme within Imperial College. Some of the most advanced mini-projects have revolved around specific sector themes, such as metal-contaminated mixed plastic waste, novel compatibilisers, modelling of mechanical properties of multi-layer and multi-plastic products, and composite design and disassembly. Some new collaborations with SMEs on the topic of novel product design may further expand this list in the remainder of the programme.
We have also had successes in dissemination, including public facing events in London at local museums and with a plastic recycling themed event at the recent Imperial Festival. The Festival event included researchers and investigators from across the programme, working together on public engagement. We are also contributing to media-led events, including a BBC programme on plastic recycling and several newspaper interviews and sector-wide discussions on recycling infrastructure in hospitals, councils, river pollution and other areas.
Exploitation Route In the second half of the programme, we plan to further expand the challenge projects with industrial partners (several new projects are under development, for PhD projects and Masters' studies). We also look forward to examining both the design aspects involved with integrating the new technologies under development and engaging with policy stakeholder to map the routes that will be taken to encourage adoption of these new approaches.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink

 
Description Policy advice
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
 
Description Health assessment across biological length scales for personal pollution exposure and its mitigation (INHALE)
Amount £2,793,915 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/T003189/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2019 
End 03/2022
 
Description Nestle Packaging 
Organisation Nestlé UK
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution We have hosted several visits and calls with Nestle to discuss mechanical and chemical recycling and alterntaive business models
Collaborator Contribution Samples provided
Impact Joint project developed
Start Year 2019
 
Description PepsiCo packaging 
Organisation PepsiCo
Country United States 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution We have hosted several visits and calls wit hPepsiCo to discuss mechanical and chemical recycling and alterntaive business models
Collaborator Contribution Samples provided
Impact No outputs Mechanical, Chemical and Design Engineering and Chemistry
Start Year 2019
 
Description Public Engagement 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Policy workshop
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019