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 are some of the region’s largest consumers and greatest 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 308.25 tonnes of plastic between 2019 and 2023. TRANSFORM-CE will thus not only divert hundreds 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 businesses
By offering an alternative to virgin plastic feedstock, TRANSFORM-CE will help businesses to transition towards a circular economy and future-proof their operations. To support this, three facilities will be established in North West Europe, including an R&D centre in Manchester (United Kingdom), a prototyping unit in Mons (Belgium), and a Green Plastic Factory in Almere (the Netherlands). These facilities will support the processing of single-use plastic waste into recycled plastic feedstocks and filaments, which can then be processed into a variety of new products using two innovative technologies, intrusion-extrusion moulding and additive manufacturing. Example products include tables, chairs, construction materials, architectural models, components and spare parts for repair, however, the possibilities are endless! TRANSFORM-CE will therefore encourage material resources to be used and reused efficiently by increasing the amount of material recovered, re-used, recycled and diverted from landfill. The project also aims to establish how many times these products can be returned through the process to be recycled again, turning them back into recycled feedstock and ultimately new products, 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 16,000 tonnes of plastic in 10 years.