The problems of plastic waste and in particular its adverse effects on the environment are gaining importance and attention in politics, economics, science and the media. More than eight million tons of disposable plastic ends up in our oceans every year, damaging our ecosystems and health. In Europe, the north western countries (United Kingdom, Ireland, Germany, France and the Benelux countries) are the main consumers and the largest producers of disposable plastic waste. In addition to the problems of disposing of and recycling plastic waste, there are also challenges on the procurement side: the proportion of recycled material for new products is low while the demand for plastic production is increasing. Over the last years million tonnes of plastic products were manufactured in the EU and only 30% of the plastic waste generated was collected for recycling. Half of this was exported to countries outside the EU for further processing and is thus lost as a secondary raw material for the European plastics economy.
Under these circumstances, more plastics recycling is not only necessary from an ecological point of view, but also economically as it could meet the demand of the plastics producing and processing industry and contribute to regional value creation. In terms of resource efficiency, landfilling and incineration of plastic waste should be avoided and instead, priority be given to material reuse and high-value recycling.
The TRANSFORM-CE project, led by Professor Craig Banks of Manchester Metropolitan University, has the potential to bring about radical change by enabling disposable plastics – including single use plastics – to be recycled and reused in nine European countries. The development of a circular economy and the strengthening of the market for recyclates in North West Europe has many advantages: independence from importing primary resources; valorisation of disposable plastics; stimulation of demand for recycled products; and prevention and mitigation of environmental impacts and losses through landfilling and incineration.
Valuable new products will be created from current single-use plastic waste
Currently, plastic products are manufactured from scratch using virgin material and natural resources. They are used once and are then at best recycled into different, poorer quality products, before ultimately becoming waste. TRANSFORM-CE plans to convert all types of single use plastic from municipal and commercial waste streams into valuable new products. It intends to divert an estimated 2,580 tonnes of plastic between 2021 and 2024. This will equate to an estimated reduction in CO2 of 2,800 tonnes. TRANSFORM-CE will thus not only divert thousands of tonnes of waste from landfill across North West Europe, but also create new economic demand for the uptake of recycled plastic materials by businesses, both locally and further afield.
TRANSFORM-CE and business
By offering businesses an alternative to virgin plastic feedstock, TRANSFORM-CE will support them to become circular. Using recycled plastic from two pilot plants in Almere, The Netherlands, and Greater Manchester, United Kingdom, to create new products will become a viable business model. The plants will allow material resources to be used and reused efficiently by increasing the amount of material recovered, re-used, recycled and diverted from landfill. Two innovative technologies – intrusion extrusion moulding (IEM) and additive manufacturing (AM) – will turn single-use plastic waste back into raw plastic material, known as feedstock, to then become anything from tables, chairs, construction material and other new valuable products. After that, these products can be recycled again, turning them back into feedstock and closing the loop. In the words of Professor Banks, “It is fantastic that we are leading this circular step change, engaging with EU research institutes, business and government to support the adoption of a circular economy and wider engagement as part of Industry 4.0.”
Developing an EU Road Map towards a circular economy for SUP waste
By scaling technology, TRANSFORM-CE will develop and demonstrate circular economy business models and stimulate new secondary material markets across North West Europe for re-manufacturing, demonstrating that municipal waste plastic can be re-purposed and revalued. Long-term uptake through scaling up of the technology with industry investment will have the potential to divert an estimated 55 Mt in 10 years.