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Finding sustainable ways to deal with plastics

Finding sustainable ways to deal with plastics

By Professor Christos TsinopoulosDr Riccardo Mogre and Onur Ağca, November 2021

How do we balance our need for plastics with the problems they create? Professor Christos Tsinopoulos, Dr Riccardo Mogre and Onur Ağca discuss how their research hopes to significantly improve recycling chains.

Despite the bad publicity plastics have received in recent years, they remain crucial for our daily lives. In addition to providing solutions to many of our daily problems, their lightness and durability make them indispensable in areas like technology production, healthcare and aviation. Plastics are, therefore, irrevocable materials in terms of maintaining the quality of our lives. Furthermore, and counterintuitively, they can bring environmental benefits compared with other, seemingly more sustainable, materials. For instance, a study by the UK Royal Society of Chemistry from 2020 found that the production of a paper cup might have greater environmental impact. This is because it requires up to 28% more oil, generates 580 times more wastewater, and leads to three times more emissions than a plastic crucible.

Yet, many of the characteristics that make the production of products from plastics popular also have a significant negative impact on the environment: the low cost of production and handling results in many single-use applications and an increase in landfill disposals; their durability makes their degradation in nature harder; and their application versatility creates problems for collection and processing. Non-degraded plastics in the form of microplastics then negatively affect the environment by physically harming animals and creating garbage zones in land and oceans, damaging the health of both animal and human life.

The result on the environment has been staggering. Only 6% of the nine billion plastics that have been produced since the 1950s has been recycled, and more than half of these have gone to landfill as waste. Therefore, it is critical to find sustainable ways to manage plastics waste, so that plastic's positive impact on societies and economies starts to outweigh its negative effect on the environment.

Governments, companies and local authorities have been employing various sustainability strategies in an effort to manage the plastic waste flow across the whole spectrum of products' lifecycles. At the front end, there have been efforts to redesign the materials themselves via bio-based innovations to enhance their degradability. In the middle, governments implement policies that aim to influence consumer behaviour in ways that reduce the overall level of waste production. Strategies at the end of product lifecycles aim to improve the recycling processes and technologies to reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in landfill. In this case, waste becomes the input as raw material in a supply chain where the recycled products is the output.

Yet, despite their appeal, recycling plastics waste supply chains can become very complicated and require constant decision-making in an environment where there are several constraints, including:

  • Lack of standardisation. In the UK, waste collection and processing companies are responsible for managing this process. However, there is little central coordination or integration between local authorities, which creates inconsistencies in how waste is collected, separated and processed.
  • Insufficiency of collection. The relative lack of consistent rules for the collection and separation of waste generates problems for the later stages of plastics recycling supply chains. The ideal collection scheme would segregate plastic types at the beginning of the waste lifecycle. Yet, in most cases, the design of household recycling bins does not encourage consumers to separate plastics from other recyclable materials such as paper, glass and metals.
  • Economic efficiency. Although the use of recycled plastic feedstock is preferable from an environmental angle, it also needs to be economically viable and profitable for companies to engage with and invest in. Yet, the relative low price of virgin plastic feedstocks limits its attractiveness to businesses.
  • Recycling capacity. Enabling capacity and supply balance in the plastics recycling sector may be difficult because it requires a significant amount of initial investment in infrastructure.
  • Quality of output. Technically, plastics can be recycled multiple times. However, their quality deteriorates after each cycle, which means that they lose their rigidness and can be easily bent or torn.
  • Contamination. The risk of contamination is a crucial concern in the use of recycled plastics. It is difficult to achieve clean waste and therefore to produce clean outputs. Chemical recycling methods, which can provide better results, can be very expensive.
  • Transparency, measurement and assessment difficulties. The very nature of waste makes its traceability and measurement difficult. Similarly, a comprehensive overview of plastic waste flow is lacking. This generates difficulties in both assessing the efficiency of recycling and identifying its environmental impact.
  • Legislative difficulties. Existing legislation on plastics recycling is new and evolving and, as a result, difficult for recycling companies to implement. Moreover, in some cases companies have been indirectly incentivised to export plastic waste instead of recycling it. To address this, new laws continue to be introduced.
  • Covid-19. Following the onset of the pandemic in 2020, sterilisation has become an important topic, at times, at the expense of environmental considerations. As a result, it has interfered with plastics recycling and waste reduction activities. Fortunately, as we go through the second year of the pandemic, companies and policymakers have started to react to its impact, e.g. by more systematically recycling Covid-19-related waste such as PPE and masks.

With the generous support of the ESRC Impact Acceleration Account, a research team from Durham University Business School and the North East Process Industry Cluster (NEPIC), has been leading a project aimed at tackling the above challenges. Our goal is to provide a list of implementable recommendations to the government and plastics recycling companies by applying the results of the supply chain research conducted at the Centre of Innovation and Technology Management.

The project has studied the operations of 57 companies from the North East of England that operate either as waste management companies, plastic material manufacturers or providers of supporting services. This has allowed us to map the supply chain and identify the capabilities required for a complete plastics recycling cycle that turns plastics waste back into its raw material form.

Our results to date have led to a series of observations:

  • By mapping the key recycling organisations, the waste management providers, and the customers of recyclates we are increasing the transparency and visibility of the supply chain. This will enable the creation of a connection hub so potential partners can be identified, strengthening the integrated reverse plastic supply chains.
  • By profiling the competence of the companies, we are also able to gauge the overall recycling capability of the region and requirements for further development. As the project will also identify best practices for various situations, this will provide companies with an industry benchmark.
  • By identifying the occurrence of the aforementioned problems in the region, we highlight that the interaction with the economic development matters.
  • By highlighting the impact of the pandemic on the recycling companies, we are able to generate strategies for the post-Covid-19 recycling world.

In conclusion, our project has a direct impact on the sustainability of the plastics recycling industry in the region, by a) enhancing the local visibility of the supply chains, b) guiding improvements for the supply chain and c) benchmarking the activities of the participating companies.

More information on the work of the Centre for Innovation and Technology Management.