Television programs rarely change thinking on materials policy let alone provoke new research initiatives. But that is exactly what happened in the wake of Sir David Attenborough’s latest BBC TV series, Blue Planet II, which aired last fall. Among many images, these episodes—a follow-up to the first series broadcast in 2001—showed scenes of empty bottles and other plastic debris littering the seabed and the shorelines, and killing sea life.
The impact of these images in the UK, with front page coverage, prompting speeches from the Prime Minister, Theresa May, along with statements in Parliament by the Chancellor of the Exchequer (chief financial minister), with promises of policies to discourage the UK’s use of single-use plastics. The most important move on research was the announcement of a new Plastics Research and Innovation Fund (PRIF).
The media interest also prompted businesses to jump in. Ikea, the global home furnishings retailer, announced that by October 2018, stores in the UK and Ireland would “no longer offer and sell single-use plastic straws.” Fast food outlets such as McDonald’s, which had already announced trials of paper straws, quickly followed suit.
The research focus was £20 million for the PRIF, managed by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and delivered through the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), Innovate UK, and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). Science Minister Sam Gyimah said that the aim of the research will be “to come up with new technology and also new plastics that do not harm the environment so much.”
A further impetus to quell the uncontrolled disposal of plastic waste came in a report last spring from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Improving Markets for Recycled Plastics (doi:10.1787/9789264301016). This report put the failure to recycle some plastic down to the fact that it is still cheaper to make new plastic than to recycle plastic. The OECD highlighted several areas where research is needed, including chemical recycling, “technological processes that convert polymers into their constituent molecules, which can then be used as feedstock for new plastics, fuels or other petrochemicals.”
One project in this area was the subject of a recent article in the Journal of Cleaner Production (doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2018.03.205). Researchers at Aston University described work that created road surfacing material by the pyrolysis of “real municipal waste samples received from a local waste treatment plant” to create a material that they call bio-bitumen. The researchers believe that their research could add to the armory of recycling technologies. According to lead author Yang Yang, a researcher in biomass pyrolysis, “If the product is largely produced and widely applied, we would have a better way to convert our waste, including nonbiodegradable plastic waste, into a high-value construction material, instead of current disposal practices such as landfill and incineration—both of which are harmful to the environment.”
Co-author Yuqing Zhang, a researcher in highway engineering, says, “Currently, we would need to blend our material into conventional bitumen for road applications such as asphalt, but ultimately our aim is to develop the product to replace it altogether.” One objective of the “intermediate pyrolysis technology” is to incorporate a wide range of organic materials, including polymers that are now recycled in more conventional ways. According to Zhang, “we expect to be able to significantly increase the proportion of the renewable parts, or the ‘bio-fraction,’ in the final asphalt mixture product for road surfacing.” Highways England and the Birmingham City Council have already expressed interest in the work. For this to happen, industry will have to step in. That is the aim of the second part of the PRIF initiative, which will provide R&D funding for companies to bring new recycling technologies and new materials to market.
In a call last summer for projects under the banner “Plastics innovation: towards zero waste,” the UK government set aside up to £4 million for companies “to develop new solutions to reduce persistent plastics entering our environment.” The funding competition for this money could go to ideas for “developing new polymers, processes, designs, recycling regimes, value-added recyclate or bio-alternative.”
In October, the UK’s Business Secretary, Greg Clark, announced that 11 projects have won government backing of £4 million from the PRIF fund. The successful projects include, for example, one that will investigate recycling plastics such as for car bumpers and motorcycle helmets, which are currently sent to landfills, to turn them into plastic pellets for molding into new products. In another project, Skipping Rocks Lab in London will investigate the use of seaweed extract, already used as an alternative to plastic water bottles, to replace plastic packaging in single-use condiment sachets on takeaway counters. Another award was for a project to study biodegradable plastic packaging that can go into compost bins along with food waste.
The attack on plastics waste was the theme of yet another initiative unveiled by UKRI. The plan, launched by the Prime Minister at this year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London in May, is to create a new global R&D hub to address this problem. India, Canada, and other Commonwealth countries have already agreed to be part of the new Marine Plastics Research and Innovation Framework, “a hub where researchers will be able to connect and collaborate on the latest research and innovations to tackle marine plastics.”