Designing-out Plastic Waste

Designing-out Plastic Waste

This 18-month project, funded by UKRI, brings together a diverse team of UCL researchers interested in solving the plastic waste problem. Our aim is to develop ways to design-out waste from plastic packaging and create new business opportunities. We believe that waste is a failure of design - whether that is a failure to design plastics to be reusable, recyclable, or compostable; a failure to design collection methods that change behaviour; a failure to design economically viable mechanical and chemical recycling processes; or a failure to design the market incentives that ensure local authorities can invest in waste management technology. Each design failure affects and compromises the whole system, leading to leakage of plastic into the environment, and creating an economic burden on the UK. 

The project will focus on these three objectives: 

1. Building on our strengths: We will connect our research expertise in biopolymer synthesis, scalable manufacturing, new service models for products, polymer biodegradability, life cycle analysis (LCA), material flow analysis (MFA), digital technologies and circular economy analysis, to develop enzyme catalysed recycling technology for laminate films. 

Plastic laminate films have been identified by all players in the retail and manufacturing sector as fundamental to their business, but are currently problematic to recycle. Objective 1 is to explore the potential of recently discovered bacteria and enzymes that consume plastics to create strategies for a fully circular economy of PP (polypropylene), PEF (polyethylene furanoate) and PET (polyethylene terephthalate) and to build bio-derived plastics for films using enzymes. In this 18-month time frame we aim to tackle the following questions; (i) what are the advantages and drawbacks of a circular economy of enzyme catalysed bio-derived polymer films; (ii) what are systems advantages of biopolymers; (iii) how can we create a biopolymer circular economy. 

2. Designing novel solutions: We will analyse the current linear plastic packaging economy and use design methodology to create and test new interventions to design-out plastics waste and move towards circularity and new business opportunities.

Our external Steering Committee has identified a number of specific issues in other aspects of plastic packaging which require a systems approach, for example: the implications on food waste if current unrecyclable polymer films are banned; the effect of packaging taxes on behaviour change; easier ways for citizens to understand recycling plastics; finding a replacement for metal-coated plastic films. We will take a multidisciplinary design approach to seeking novel solutions to these issues, creating feasibility studies, and working with commercial partners to develop the most promising. 

3. Growing capacity for innovation: We will create a multidisciplinary UCL Plastic Waste Innovation Hub mobilising our research community and creating an interface with the public, to get them involved in plastic waste research, to appreciate the value of plastic to society, discuss the barriers to behaviour change, and to contribute to new ways to design-out plastic waste. 

Eliminating plastic waste will not be solved through a single technological break-through, but by designing-out the flaws in the current system, and moving gradually from a linear to a circular economy. To do this we need to take the public with us because they are part of the disposal/recycling system: they buy plastic in the form of packaging and they are the ones who must put in the right bin for it to get recycled (if recyclable). Hence this project aims to bring together researchers and include a number of initiatives to collaborate, engage and consult with the public and identify barriers to implementing behaviour change, from reducing to recycling. The role of the Hub will be to create a focus for UCL plastics-waste research, to agree on a set of problems that can only be solved by working together. 

Led by Professor Mark Miodownik (Mechanical Engineering), in this project we take a design approach by assembling a UCL team of experts in each part of the system – Professor John Ward (Biochemical Engineering); Professor Helen Hailes (Chemistry); Professor Paola Lettieri (Chemical Engineering); Professor Francesca Medda (Civil Engineering); Dr Teresa Domenech (Institute for Sustainable Resources); Professor Susan Michie (Behavioural Science).

We have also assembled a Steering Committee of professionals from across the whole sector, from manufacturing, retailers, policymaking, local government, sustainability charities, waste management, and others. We will invite them to our meetings, welcome collaboration and the opportunity to apply for more joint funding to ensure the legacy of this Hub after this 18-month funding comes to an end.

This research is funded by:

Designing-out Plastic Waste