Opinion: Building momentum: an exciting time for plastics 

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By Paul Davidson, director of UKRI’s Smart Sustainable Plastics Packaging Challenge

In discussions about the future of plastics packaging, system change is the buzz word, but what does it really mean? System change is rarely, if ever, spontaneous. In any given system, the current solutions are almost certainly those that are optimal for the current business environment. The system won’t change, therefore, unless at least one of the three key boundary conditions change: 

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  • the policy/regulatory landscape
  • what’s possible scientifically and technologically
  • what the market (including consumers) wants.

Even then, the change must be enough that the current system is no longer financially the most rewarding and there will still be significant system inertia to overcome as a result of vested interests and risk aversion. This is particularly so for plastics packaging – a high volume, low margin, global commodity industry. 

What is so exciting right now, however, is that precisely this scale of disruption is on the horizon. Not just in the UK but across the globe, the policy and regulatory landscape that shapes the plastics packaging supply chain is evolving fast to drive greater sustainability. From major legislative changes in Europe and beyond, to voluntary agreements similar to the UK Plastics Pact in countries including South Africa, Thailand and India and the possibility of a UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution, there is real momentum building.  

On the domestic front, the UK is moving towards the implementation of several policies – long in the gestation – that will fundamentally alter our relationship with plastic packaging. They will drive better packaging design and end-of-life management (packaging Extended Producer Responsibility), increase the amount of quality material available for recycling (Deposit Return for beverage containers and consistent recycling collections), and provide a financial incentive to use the resulting recyclate (Plastic Packaging Tax). On their own, each of these is a potential game changer; taken together, they could rock the system. 

In terms of the ‘what’s possible’ boundary, science and technological innovation is moving fast too. Big names in the petrochemical supply chain are exploring and beginning to invest in chemical recycling processes. New bio-based polymeric materials are being developed and much more data and analysis is emerging with regard to the potential future role of these ‘bio-polymers’ and their carbon impact compared to fossil-fuel derived polymers. Advances in Artificial Intelligence and ‘tagging’ technologies are now being applied to the plastics packaging challenge to deliver more sophisticated tracking and sorting of post-use plastics packaging, as well as to facilitate the ‘back-end’ system that is so critical to the success of reuse and refill business models.

More difficult to pin down are the changes in what the market wants. As sustainability has become more of a motivator for consumers, retailers and brands are increasingly keen to explore pack formats and materials that demonstrate their commitment to the environment. The policy changes coming down the line, and the higher costs that will be associated with less environmentally friendly packaging are also focusing minds on more circular packaging models. But as ever, consumer behaviour and willingness to embrace different packaging models will be key. The gap between what consumers say they want and the reality at the point of purchase is widely acknowledged and this is a particular hurdle for packaging reuse and refill models.  

As the largest Government investment into sustainable plastic packaging and waste management the Smart Sustainable Plastics Packaging (SSPP) Challenge is working across all of these boundaries. It is de-risking innovation that could change the ‘art of the possible’, providing evidence and knowledge to underpin and support policy reform, and exploring solutions to the behaviour change barriers to the uptake of new packaging formats. It also has international reach and supports the UK’s ambition to play a leading role in the global drive to reduce the environmental impact of plastic packaging. The 18 successful SSPP funded projects announced this week are genuinely innovative and some are the first of a kind nationally, within Europe, and, in some cases, globally. We are also supporting the development of voluntary Plastic Pacts in a number of countries including India, and two others to be announced imminently.

Closer to home, one of the main objectives behind SSPP’s work is to support the achievement of the UK Plastics Pact 2025 targets. To this end, the latest rounds of funding have been strategically targeted to address major barriers and challenges that constrain current plastic packaging reduction and recycling, with large scale demonstrator projects focused on mainstreaming reuse and refill, food grade polypropylene recycling, and films and flexible packaging recycling. 

The business-led R&D projects range from AI-powered sorting systems for mixed plastics streams, RFID technology and cleaning infrastructure to support reusable business models, and an assessment of the economic and environmental impact of mainstreaming compostable packaging. Others will explore whether microwaves can provide a more efficient and controllable heat supply for pyrolysis and whether ‘super critical water’ can be used as a green solvent to enable the recycling of hard-to-recycle mixed plastic waste streams into a chemical feedstock to go back into plastics manufacture. 

The spectrum of projects reflects the multiple interventions need to deliver genuine step change, and, if successful, they have the potential to alter our relationship with, and management of, plastic packaging. All eyes are on 2025!

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