Addressing the plastics recycling challenge at UKRI

With UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) increasingly channelling funding into recycling technology, reducing plastic packaging and increasing reusable packaging, Paul Davidson, Challenge Director of Smart Sustainable Plastic Packaging, discusses ongoing projects and challenges brought about by mass consumer plastic packaging

What are the main criteria UKRI is looking for in a successful project?

We look for bold, disruptive proposals. Our highlight themes are:

  • minimised / reduced plastic packaging
  • enable refill at scale
  • sustainable solutions for film and flexibles
  • food grade recycled polypropylene and polyethylene
  • behaviour change leading to less packaging waste and/or higher recycling rates
  • addressing the UK Plastics Pact target for problematic or unnecessary single use plastic packaging items

We use a combination of external and internal assessment to ensure a fair selection process of projects best placed to meet the broad sweep of the SSPP objectives. Co-investment is project specific. For example, if SSPP supplies 25 per cent of the funds, the remaining 75 per cent comes either directly from the project partners or from their investors.

Could you tell us a bit about the main UKRI-funded projects currently underway?

The four large-scale commercial demonstration projects already ongoing are all set to be completed by 2022-3.

The first is the ReNew ELP plant centred on a Catalytic Hydrothermal Reactor (Cat-HTR™) at Wilton, Teesside. Once up and running, the plant would convert 20,000 tonnes per annum (tpa) (increasing to 80,000tpa on site completion) of end-of-life plastic into chemicals and oils for use in the production of new virgin grade plastics including naphtha, waxes, and a bitumen-like residue suitable for use in road construction. The project has been awarded £4.42 million of funding.

The second is Recycling Technologies, which has been awarded £3.1 million of funding for a chemical recycling plant that uses thermal cracking to recycle a wide range of plastic waste that cannot be recycled by conventional methods. The plant is designed to process 7,000tpa of hard-to-recycle mixed plastic waste, producing 5,200tpa of a hydrocarbon oil which can replace crude oil in plastics production - allowing plastic to be recycled an unlimited number of times. It will be based in Perth, Scotland.

The third is Poseidon Plastics, which aims to commercialise its novel enhanced recycling technology through the construction of a 15,000 tonne per annum PET recycling facility worth £2.6 million. Partnering with waste collection and mechanical recycling experts Biffa and PET resin producers Alpek Polyester UK and DuPont Teijin Films UK, this project aims to demonstrate how post-consumer and post-industrial packaging, film and other hard-to-recycle PET wastes can be chemically recycled back into new consumer end-use goods. Through collaboration with the Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence at the University of York and polyester fibre users O’Neills Irish International Sports Company and GRN Sportswear (trading as Presca Sportswear), the consortium further aims to demonstrate and optimise a closed-loop, circular economy for all polyester materials.

The fourth is Veolia, which, in collaboration with Unilever, Charpak Ltd and HSSMI, will develop the UK's first dual PET bottle and tray recycling facility (supported by a digital twin created by HSSMI), capable of recycling 100 per cent clear rigid PET in a closed-loop system. The £8.4 million project will also see Unilever investigate the non-food contact recycled PET produced from this facility in its home and personal care range, so avoiding the use of food contact grade material in these non-food products. Charpak Ltd will use the flakes produced in its trays, making tray to tray recycling a reality. This will create a new, complementary non-food closed loop for recycled PET and widen availability of the material for use in bottles and trays.  Through the development and use of the digital twin, HSSMI will pioneer a virtual engineering approach in the waste industry, which will help optimise the facility and identify potential commercial challenges. If initial trials are successful, the proposed facility would process 35,000tpa of mixed PET packaging waste at an existing Veolia site. 

The four large-scale demonstrator projects all target difficult-to-recycle plastic packaging formats and have the capability of recycling plastic back into food contact packaging. This directly impacts on two of the Plastic Pact targets (70 per cent recycled and 30 per cent recycled content). However, these four demonstrators are only a part of the portfolio SSPP is building and it is our intention that our projects should contribute to all the Plastic Pact targets.

In terms of mass consumer plastic packaging, what do you consider the main issues to be right now? What should these projects look to eliminate or expand?

Key behavioural changes will include embracing unwrapped/reduced packaging and refill systems, valuing recycling and worrying about getting it wrong! It would be great if consumers were offered and made more sustainable choices generally to incentivise change.

There are many factors that have played a role in the normalisation of plastic recycling in the past couple of decades, among these the inclusion of plastic packaging in kerbside collection schemes; the development and adoption of automated sorting of plastic packaging; food contact recycling of PET and HDPE; and the retailers who, often through voluntary agreements, helped provide a degree of market certainty for the recyclates produced. 

Moreover, the viability of plastic recycling infrastructure in the UK is highly susceptible to fluctuations in the price of oil. Polymer pricing has traditionally been a cyclical business and the issue has been that many recyclers don’t have the critical mass to be able to ride out the bad times. This is changing as recyclers become integrated into either resin producers or packaging convertors. The EPR, DRS and virgin plastic tax proposals should also help to reduce this effect, though.

Are there niches in the current mix of plastic packaging that would be better served through the use of bioplastics?

In the short term, yes, and these have been identified by WRAP. These include food service, tea bags and fruit stickers. In the longer term, I suspect we will see these materials used more widely, not because they biodegrade, but because they have a low fossil carbon content compared with traditional polymers produced from traditional feedstocks. The challenge will be to introduce these polymers in a way that is not excessively disruptive to the waste management sector. We are funding a project at UCL that is designed to address this point.

Three of our large-scale demonstrator projects have the capability to recycle films. The capture of films is being led by the retailers through the provision of front of store collection points, which we hope will then move to kerbside collection schemes as part of the ‘consistent collection’ proposals.

The Smart Sustainable Plastic Packaging (SSPP) challenge programme, which is part of UKRI’s Industrial Strategies Challenge Fund (ISCF), is launching two new competitions that will see grants of up to £12 million awarded. For more information on all SSPP competition, visit UK CPN.