The primary objective of C-PlaNeT is to demonstrate that a sustainable future for plastics is possible when all the different actors in the value chain collaborate, interact, challenge and complement each other.
To decouple plastics from fossil resources
To design for circularity, in terms of both materials and products
To involve the consumer as a stakeholder in a circular-economy future for plastics
To develop efficient waste-to-resource recycling technologies
To develop overarching strategies for circular plastics
These objectives are all interrelated.
Research methodology and approach
The 15 Early Stage Researcher (ESR) topics will be selected to provide a holistic and interdisciplinary scientific response to the current challenge of making plastics more circular. The 15 ESRs will tackle the major research challenges in their tailored PhD research projects, going beyond the current state of the art, achieving the project’s objectives, and so closing the loop for plastics.
Objective 1: To decouple plastics from fossil resources
Decoupling plastics from fossil feedstock is one of the fundamentals that will drive the circular plastics economy. To achieve this, various alternative sources for plastic materials need to be investigated. Under OBJ 1, we will research both regenerated once fossil-based materials and bio-based plastics. A fully alternative source is bio-based plastics. When sufficient masses are available, these streams could be recycled instead of degraded. Currently, not much is known about their mechanical recyclability, which is the key focus of ESR1. Decoupling from virgin fossil resources also means re-using plastics already introduced into the lifecycle. Within these regenerated plastics we will consider polymers from multiple mechanical recycling (ESR11), monomers from thermochemical recycling/pyrolysis (ESR12) as well as tackle the challenge of recycling complex and degraded plastics from ocean and beach waste (ESR15).
Objective 2: To design for circularity, in terms of both materials and products
If plastics as a material are to be brought full circle, especially if closed-loop recycling to high-end applications is pursued, they need to be designed for circularity from the very beginning. Not just the products into which they are made, but also the plastic materials and additives them- selves. Under OBJ 2 we investigate three parallel trajectories that will make plastic products more circular: ESR4 investigates sustainable (flame retardant) additives, not only obtaining them from bio-based sources, but also ensuring that they are not considered hazardous and so will present no problem for recycling. ESR2 will use polymer engineering to develop ‘mono-multilayers’. These are multilayered functional materials in which the individual layers are com- posed of the same basic polymer, albeit differently structured. This allows them to perform as a multilayer during their lifetime, but to be recycled as a monomaterial. ESR3 will investigate how products can be developed so that they are not just fit for recycling at their end-of-life, but how they can also move from the ‘outer circle’ of recycling to the ‘inner circles’ of reuse and repair.
Objective 3: To involve the consumer as a stakeholder in a circular-economy future for plastics
The circular economy will not be realized by technology alone. Clearly, the consumer has a key role in the lifecycle of plastics. Consumers are, somehow, an ‘uncontrollable’ part of the chain, where the traceability of materials is often lost. Their perception and capability to engage in the circular economy is essential. This is the research focus of ESR6. When consumers – be they properly engaged as a stakeholder or not – dispose of their used products, they have another strong influence by means of their sorting/disposal behaviour. ESR7 will investigate how product-oriented waste logistics (for existing and new materials/products) can improve the overall efficiency of plastics circularity, thus also linking strongly to OBJ 2 and OBJ 4. Another key feature is to connect the business model of the industries producing the product with the business model of industries (which might include some of the same actors) in the after-use phases. These business models for the circular economy and their potential for plastics are the core focus of ESR5, while taking input from ESRs 3, 6, 7 and 13.
Objective 4: To develop efficient waste-to-resource recycling technologies
Once the plastic product completes its use phase, it is vital that the waste-to-resource transition is as efficient as possible in terms of quantity and quality. Un- der OBJ 4 we first consider pre-treatments to remove the contaminants that are detrimental to all types of recycling, such as odours (ESR8) or targeted additives (ESR9). These pre-treatments are needed to achieve more closed-loop re- cycling, in the case of mechanical recycling, or preventing operational problems, such as corrosion during mechanical and/or chemical recycling. These pre-treatments also expand the potential quantity of input materials, as previously unsuitable plastic waste might now become accept- able. Finalising the cycle, C-PlaNeT includes work on developing two key plastic-recycling methods, i.e., mechanical (ESR11) and thermochemical (ESR10, ESR12) recycling.
Objective 5: To develop overarching strategies for circular plastics.
All of the previous objectives will feed into the overarching OBJ 5, which considers the whole plastics lifecycle and the relevant stakeholders. While applying a “systems thinking” approach, this work package evaluates various current and future scenarios and gives continuous feedback to all the other ESRs. As such, the two ESRs in this WP also have a synchronising role. ESR14 focuses on the material flows and their environmental impact, quantified by lifecycle assessments, while ESR13 will analyse the perception of different stakeholders and connect the implications of policy decisions to the various aspects of industrial (and consumer) reality in the plastics circle.