Could bioplastics, carbon fibre and 3D printing unlock the circular economy for UK?

Novel materials like bioplastics and carbon fibre could be key to a low-carbon, resource-efficient economy envisioned in the government’s industrial strategy, according to environmental think tank Green Alliance.

Could bioplastics and 3D printing unlock the circular economy for UK?
Carbon fibre can be used for the bodies of cars
A study conducted by the think tank, ‘Getting it right from the start: Developing a circular economy for novel materials’, published today (2 February) found that an increased focus on design for recycling, remanufacturing and reuse in new materials could help lower costs for British manufacturers and increase their competitiveness.

The use of carbon fibre enables lighter weight, more fuel-efficient vehicles, while bioplastics are showing the potential to match and even exceed the effectiveness of fossil-fuel based plastics in certain applications (as Resource investigated last year).

However, it also warned that unless early consideration is given to these factors, materials like carbon fibre composites could also disrupt existing recycling systems and create new waste problems.

Indeed, mouldable and sturdy carbon fibre, used for a range of products from boat hulls and bike helmets to wind turbines, currently has only limited and problematic end-of-life options, either being recycled at very high heat and great expense to recover a fraction of its original constituents, or burning it for energy. Otherwise, the material often ends up in landfill.

Novel approaches to the circular economy

The report, which was carried out on behalf of Innovate UK, the High Value Manufacturing Catapult and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, looks in particular at carbon fibre composites, bioplastics and 3D printing to show how each present both challenges and opportunities for a more circular economy.

It suggests a number of ways that the three materials could be approached to make them more attuned to a circular economy, and beneficial to other UK industries.

For example, it suggests that increasing the quality and quantity of recycled carbon fibres would enable more manufacturers to use the material as it costs 20-40 per cent less than new fibres, enabling them to compete in new markets and with new applications.

Using more waste materials and by-products to make bioplastics, meanwhile, would help UK agricultural, food and drink sectors lower their waste costs, and commercialising bioplastic production from waste would also mean British manufacturers could compete with the Brazilian sugar cane and subsidised US corn that dominate current supply chains. 

The study also posits that 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, could be harnessed to refurbish broken parts, thereby increasing opportunities for repair and remanufacturing businesses.

Commenting on the report, author Jonny Hazell said: “Our work shows both the threat and opportunity of novel materials, with action needed now to avoid disrupting established resource management systems and increasing the waste of materials. But, equally, addressing this problem will improve productivity and have employment benefits, through developing high-value materials and keeping them in use for longer.”

Government must support life-cycle thinking

The report highlights that to realise the opportunities provided by novel materials, the government’s industrial strategy, launched last month, would need to support new technologies and sectors in three key ways:

  • provide the support and information designers and manufacturers need to think through the whole life cycle of their materials to identify barriers to recovering value from them;
  • support collaboration between sectors and along supply chains to develop new applications for recovered materials; and
  • fund research into more recyclable materials and new recovery technologies.

Hazell added: “If it promotes a circular economy as part of its industrial strategy, the government will go a long way towards boosting employment and economic prospects, not just for scientists and engineers, but for small businesses around the country as well.”

Green Alliance’s ‘Getting it right from the start: Developing a circular economy for novel materials’ report is available to read and download from the think tank’s website.

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