Exeter Multidisciplinary Plastics Research hub: ExeMPLaR

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Management

Abstract

In a circular economy, clean growth is achieved by increasing the value derived from existing and planned economic infrastructure, products and materials which in turn significantly reduces or eliminates negative externalities. Increased value can be achieved by maintaining the integrity of a product or material at a higher level, using products longer, cascading their use in adjacent value chains and designing pure, high quality feedstocks (avoiding contamination and toxicity). A circular economy approach to plastics addresses simultaneously the accumulation, impact and costs in the environment whilst maintaining applications for multiple high value purposes. To translate potential to reality requires new circular plastics systems that a) co-ordinate and integrate key system players and activities across the value chain b) are underpinned by rigorous scientific research evidence; c) promote novel and creative approaches to the circulation and cascading of plastics in society and; d) demonstrate and proof points in support of decision-making and action at varying s
Ths proposal will connect excellent institutional research activities within a single highly visible Multidisciplinary Plastics Research Hub - "ExeMPlaR" led by the University of Exeter to provide the first stage in a comprehensive, systematic and coordinated approach to the formation of a novel and creative circular economies, using regional demonstrators in the SW of England to test a number of key building blocks. This will be based on system-oriented innovation and high quality inter-disciplinary and collaborative scientific research within a proven, cohesive circular economy framework to address both the cause(s) of the problems and efforts to solve them rather than just treating the symptoms. This research effort involves the demonstration of the technical feasibility and superior economic, material, health, environmental and social value of a circular economy system re-design against a current linear base case. Expert-led, technical solutions by themselves however are unlikely to be effective and require in addition a theory of change that connects human behaviours, social systems and structures with circular economy principles. ExeMPLaR will bring together business, policy, community, environmental, and media representatives with a shared 'narrative' (in this case , a new Circular Plastics Economy) values and ideas, to jointly identify and work on a complex set of activities and pilot projects, that together form an effective innovation ecosystem (WP1). EXeMPLaR will undertake a novel and creative approach to impact by applying the principles of networks of transformative change into a circular economy project. ExeMPLaR therefore focusses on the current plastic system and address the potential to create higher value from existing plastic flows, create new opportunities for regional design and closed loop manufacturing and community initiatives, reduce negative externalities and create networks for transformational change to co-design and support systems innovations required at regional scale. To achieve this vision many challenges have to be overcome.

To start the process of creating effective regional plastics economies, ExeMPLaR will synthesise an authoritative evidence base to inform regional actions, interventions and evaluation. This will build on a wide range of world leading plastics research at Exeter. We will translate these findings into the first stage of an evaluation tool and apply these to three front runner regional interventions, and additional smaller projects co-designed and prioritized by our network, to test opportunities for re-using, replacing or eliminating certain categories of fossil fuel derived plastic. After testing the impacts, outcomes and value creation potential we will address the potential challenges and enablers to replication and scaling these interventions at regional and national scale.

Planned Impact

Plastic is a major material in the UK economy and fundamental to many industrial sectors and applications. Plastics manufacturing is a major contributor to GDP, with a combined turnover of over £19 billion, 4.8 million tonnes of materials processed every year and equating to 7% of all employees in the UK manufacturing sector.The case for the recovery of higher quality plastics, redesigning, eliminating and replacing certain types of plastic and plastic use are based on the proposition of achieving a far higher economic and material benefit than using virgin or downcycling, and the accompanying social, environmental and health benefits. The systems level scope of EXemPLaR means there is a wide number of beneficiaries. The case for support builds on recent or existing research activities by a number of leading researchers. EXeMPLaR will be able to build on this work and hit the ground running to deliver impact despite the short time period of the funding.

ExeMPLaR will achieve its aims and deliver impact by:
[1] Connecting high quality academic research with a regional network for change based on research findings and understanding where it is most needed to create circular plastics economies.
[2] Providing practical and effective co-ordination for collaboration, shared learning and knowledge exchange activities targeted at the key local and regional beneficiaries through a hub design.
[3] Focussing on key hot-spots and areas of highest risk to human communities and ecosystems and the relevant key network stakeholders.
[4] Building capacity and capability, and providing a long term legacy from the hub, expertise exchange and local ownership via a design and delivery model incorporating leading key researchers and front line interventions.
[5] Co-designing interventions and new system configurations, making significant use of the hub approach, to (a) increase the likelihood and replication of funding of the right solutions (b) continuously improve intervention and promote learning between projects (c) increase the 'value' of plastics to incentivise circular systems (d) influence policy change to shift key enablers and behaviour, norms and everyday practices.

The main impacts will be:
-Access to synthesised evidence base of environmental social, health and well-being and climate change impacts and intervention and innovation opportunities.
-Households and communities: employment opportunities, scientifically based guidance and information on the effects and impacts of fossil fuel based plastic and their alternatives, reduced plastic waste.
-Collection service providers: skill upcycling from value destruction and waste generation to value retention and resources creation, enhanced reputation and job opportunities.
-Product manufacturers: high value remanufacture with reduced material usage and reduced life cycle cost of products. 'New' low carbon products, knowledge and skills and enhanced international leading expertise. Reduced cost of products and enhanced reputation through reusing materials and products in new build.
-Logistics companies: new commercial activities enabling direct material and product flow from existing waste streams to new products.
-UK manufacturing: new local and regional manufacturing jobs in innovative technologies of bioplastics, re-use and remanufacturing.
-Regional government: reduction of material downcycling and life cycle costs; improved resource productivity and enhanced competitiveness of the plastics reprocessing sector, industry; creation of new industry sectors, ventures, jobs and employment.
-Regulators: strategic guidance on reuse of plastics, bioplastics and products - uptaking and upscaling of innovation.
-Central government and wider policy environment: Proof of concept for bioplastics, food grade plastic re-use to guide future policy levers to influence circular economy and product re-use.
-UK society: reduced environmental impacts, material security.

Publications

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