Evolving a circular plastics ecomony

Lead Research Organisation: University of Hull
Department Name: Chemistry


Purpose: This project aims to identify the gaps and leaks in a plastics circular economy, and explore and develop new pathways to an enhanced circularity in plastics use by facilitating the co-design and execution of specific innovations across an interdisciplinary range of academics, stakeholders and consumers, from the full plastic value chain.

This project seeks to achieve exciting and transformative advances in the development of circular plastics economy (CPE). We have engaged a broad multidisciplinary consortium of interested researchers and stakeholders, within our Plastics Collaboratory, that aim to transform the plastic economy, with expertise ranging from development of new plastics, to post-use treatment for reprocessing, and our logistics, computer science and environmental and social science researchers. Together the outcomes will lead to improved understanding of the motivations and drivers of plastic flows in the economy and environment. To achieve this broad aim, a set of activities are planned as follows with a set of four interconnected Work Packages:

i) Stakeholder engagement - a series of workshops and outreach events will be held with regional and national companies, industrial sectors and the general public to focus on their key challenges. The main aim will be to understand the drivers and challenges affecting peoples 'plastic' behaviours. These will be timetabled regularly throughout the programme to cover key issues concerning plastic uses, properties, costs, logistics, disposal and recycling.

ii) novel catalytic chemistry to develop biodegradable biopolymers with useful plastic properties, to make new plastic material from non-fossil renewable sources which also do not persist in the environment.

iii) novel catalytic chemistry and treatments for the depolymerisation, gasification and treatment of post use plastics, to create new feedstocks suitable for reuse in the making of new plastic materials. A range of technologies will be investigated which can utilise both oil derived and bioplastics.

iv) a series of workshops to promote discussion between the different disciplines represented, and others that may emerge as relevant, ensuring cross-fertilization and idea generation;

v) Pump priming - drawing on discussions with stakeholders and between disciplines we will pump prime a number of projects. These will include lab-based research and practical engagement - using the University of Hull campus as a test site for new practices, developing new and innovative ideas and solutions that will help us to eliminate future plastic waste. We anticipate these leading to longer-term legacy of the project through steering ISCF calls.

The Humber region is fast becoming one of world's major green estuaries, and we will engage with the growing number of environmentally aware companies that have substantial holdings in the region and relationships with the university, including supermarket chains and large multi-nationals (see Partnership Letters). Business networks will also be used to build up a complete a picture of plastics flows as possible and aid modelling and mapping the shape and potential for future CPE.

Planned Impact

The persistence of plastic waste in the environment and the reliance of fossil derived polymers for their creation, are unsustainable. Yet our current level of reliance on the utility of plastics makes this a significant challenge both in terms of requiring scientific breakthroughs in materials and chemical engineering, to the change in behaviour necessary to move beyond single use fossil derived, disposable plastics.

The key driver for this programme is to generate results which could potentially be of great relevance to a range of stakeholders who rely on innovations and solutions to help reduce our ever mounting plastic waste. At its core, this programme will engage a significant number of non-academic communities, both locally, regionally and nationally and will include stakeholders from business, charitable organisations, local government and end-users (initially this will be a cross-section of University of Hull staff and students). Together with our academics they will be contributing to new understandings of how the plastic circular economy works today, and where we can start making a difference through exploring collaborative innovative ideas and solutions.

Stakeholder engagement is a significant part of this programme and is likely to inspire novel opportunities for impact that cannot be predicted in advance, but several likely outcomes can be expected. By encouraging regional businesses and end-users/consumers to share their experiences of the creation, use and recycling of plastics, including exploring the alternatives to plastics, it is likely that our logistics institute expertise will be able to analyse these supply chains and material flows to suggest potential initiatives to save energy material and waste through improved design of these processes. Through interaction with stakeholders and end-users the behavioural psychologists may also be able to come up with new insights on how people may be persuaded to change their ways.

Stakeholder engagement will also have the beneficial effect of increasing the local awareness and engagement with the research going on throughout the university, potentially shortening the pathways and timescales for translation of novel ideas materials and processes into application and use.

The creation of novel bio-derived polymers can be scaled up to create new plastics which, once adopted at scale, can significantly contribute to reducing the entry of persistent plastics to the environment. Achieving the adoption of novel plastics, at a cost suitable for introduction on a mass market scale is no small challenge, but is only possible once the initial material development work is started. More significant may be the development of a commercially viable reprocessing method for depolymerisation, gasification and regeneration of useful chemicals derived from post use plastic waste, which can be used in the regeneration of new consumer plastics. One key intended outcome of this is to be able to resolve a key problem in consumer recycling, that of having to distinguish and separate different types of plastics, including recyclable, non-recyclable, biodegradable and compostable. The aim within this project is to test and develop a process that can make use of these in mixed form, then the collection and processing of post-consumer waste can be greatly simplified.

Using the University of Hull as a test site for novel practices in plastics use and reclamation and in alternatives to plastic, will create a knowledge base and practical experience for larger, regional and national scale trials of successful initiatives.

All of these together will have a significant beneficial effect on the local environment, and on other environments which are currently impacted by plastics disposal, many of which are low income countries who import and process a large proportion of the plastic waste currently generated in Europe and America.


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