Every year, 368 million metric tonnes of plastic are produced worldwide (2018), and that number is growing by the year. Only approx. 14% of all this plastic is recycled, while the rest ends up in landfills, incinerators or in the world’s oceans. This is a problem for both, the environmental ecosystem and for our health.
One reason why such a small proportion of the world’s plastics are recycled relates not just to the immense quantities, but also the significant diversity. This means that the different plastic types cannot be handled in the same way and require efficient sorting before being recycled.
Producers of packaging for food and beverages are major consumers of plastic. In the EU, 42% of all plastic packaging is recycled, but the EU has set a target for that number to increase to 60% by 2030. This is why the EU project UPLIFT, coordinated by AAU researcher Cristiano Varrone, has set out to increase the recycling rate for plastic packaging. Among other things, UPLIFT will develop more efficient bioprocesses for breaking down non-recyclable plastic waste into its basic constituents. In this way, it will be possible to recycle the plastic again and again, without having to sort and clean the various types first, as is required with conventional technology.
- In order to make a difference, it is necessary that we play on several strings. The first step is to study the entire value chain and the existing infrastructure that handles plastic waste and recycling today. This will give us an overview of what is missing in order to realise the EU’s ambition. Next, we need to develop new biological methods that, using scalable enzymatic and microbial processes, can break down plastics more economically and efficiently. Finally, we must also work on designing new types of plastic with improved properties that will be easier to recycle, without compromising on quality in the future, says Cristiano Varrone, associate professor at the Department of Chemistry and Life Sciences at Aalborg University.
The UPLIFT project will also reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions related to the production of plastics. Among other things, this will be achieved by keeping the plastic waste of the future in a closed cycle and by integrating bio-based building blocks rather than fossil-based monomers in production.
The last element that the project will work on is the social aspect, where the role of consumers, industry and decision-makers is examined in more detail.
- We are probably not just dealing with a technological problem. Perhaps the challenge is to create better synergies between the plastics industry, policy makers, consumers and recyclers, says Cristiano Varrone.
The UPLIFT project is funded by the EU Horizon 2020 programme and will run until 2025. In addition to AAU, there are 15 partners from 8 different countries participating.