Plastic Waste Innovation Hub

In 2019 I led a bid with my UCL colleagues to establish the multidisciplinary Plastic Waste Innovation Hub (www.plasticwastehub.org.uk) through a UKRI project on plastic waste (EP/S024883/1). The research spans waste biomass derived polymer synthesis, to scalable manufacturing, to new service models for products, to behaviour change, to thermal treatment technologies, to PET recycling, to polymer biodegradability, to life cycle analysis (LCA), to material flow analysis (MFA), to circular economy analysis and sustainability.  This hub is a collaboration between the Institute of Sustainable Resources, the Centre for Behaviour Change, Biochemical Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Chemistry, Institute of Making, and the UCL Circular Economy Lab. This hub is a collaboration with multinationals,Our partners are multinationals, SMEs, policy organisations such as Inoyvn, Veolia, Procter & Gamble, LWARB, Void, Deliveroo, Recycling Technologies, FLO, Waste 2 Wear, Sabic, BPF, BPI Specialists, Ananas Anam, Woodland Trust & Closed Loop Partners.  In the hub we work closely with the other PRIF plastic waste research centers, we have international partnership with Closed Loop Partners and work regularly with WRAP and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF). The goals of the hub are: (i) develop new ways of recycling PET plastics using enzymes; (ii) designing-out waste from plastic packaging; (iii) creating new circular economy bioplastics business opportunitiesmodels; and (iv) engaging with the public. 

After a year of operation at the hub we have developed novel approaches for the discovery and application of new enhanced enzymes to degrade PET, including the retrieval and characterisation of potential PETases identified in our metagenomes, and enzyme mutagenesis [1]. Using life cycle analysis (LCA), material flow analysis (MFA), and financial analysis we have been conducting circular economy analyses of the existing UK biodegradable plastics sector. Our full policy report was submitted to UK Government’s consultation on 14 October 2019 (downloadable from [2]).  In Nov 2019 we launched a nationwide citizen science project called the Big Compost Experiment to collect data on the public’s attitudes to, and understanding of, biodegradable plastics and home compostable plastics in particular. Another aim of the Big Compost Experiment is to obtain data on the rate of biodegradation of compostable plastics in the range of conditions found across the UK homes – the first time globally this has been attempted. We currently have more than 6000 citizens from all part of the UK contributing data and there more than 1600 live composting experiments in progress. Six month results show that 84% are in favour of compostable plastics, the overwhelming majority are confused about the labelling (often putting industrially compostable packaging in their home compost) and, 16% of the compostable packaging was fully decomposed within six months.  All the data is fully open access and can be found here: https://www.bigcompostexperiment.org.uk

Our design work withDeliveroo, who deliver 45,000 take-away meals a day, is significantly reducing the estimated 1000 tonnes of plastic waste per year that go into landfill as a result of their deliveries. Our LCA work with FLO evidences the beneficial environmental impact of using bioplastics and may help to grow this product sector. Our circular economy analysis of tree shelters with the Woodland Trust reveals that hundreds of thousands of tonnes of plastic may be diverted from being abandoned in forests (downloadable from [2]). In response to COVID-19 our team undertook an analysis of the plastic waste implications of the public use of face masks. We showed that if single-use masks were adopted in the UK that would create 128,000 tonnes of plastic waste and create ten times more climate change impact than using reusable masks [3]. We have a strong public presence, as well as an important educational outlook across schools, universities, and the media (BBC Radio PM Programme, BBC Inside Science, Daily Mail, Guardian, and social media). We have produced a book (One Pop Bottle!) on recycling of plastic aimed at children and sent these out to more than 500 primary schools. We continue to pro-actively inform public debate and supply new data and insights into public discourse on biodegradables plastics and the behaviours required to minimise plastic waste.