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Trending: New Materials, Traceability Could Help Mould Circular Economy for Plastics

Different polymer types could be more easily identified under infra-red lights if the PRISM project’s trials are successful. | Image Credit: Nextek/PRISM

With the opportunity to curb over $80 billion in annual industry losses, a circular economy for plastics seems pretty appealing. Several projects in Europe are working to make this happen: Earlier this month, Sustainable Brands covered a collaborative effort between the cities of London, Amsterdam and Copenhagen to improve plastics capture, but companies, non-profits and research centres are also working together to improve traceability and create new materials to help facilitate the transition to a circular economy for plastics.

For example, the Dibbiopack project is a European Union (EU)-funded consortium involving 19 partners – research centres, small and medium enterprises (SMEs), and large companies – across 10 countries. Dibbiopack is developing 3 multifunctional, bio-based, compostable and biodegradable packaging products made from renewable sources.

The materials were designed for the pharmaceutical, cosmetics, and food industries over 4 years of research and development, and they reportedly maintain quality with increased durability and improved content preservation. Dibbiopack says it designed the products with efficient manufacturing processes, eco-design, and a circular economy in mind; as such, the polymers are compatible with injection moulding and extrusion blow moulding, and the films have enhanced properties such as anti-microbial and barrier protection for gases, making them ideal for bottles for pharmaceutical use, cosmetic packaging or food trays.

Example products developed by the Dibbiopack consortium. The food tray includes an RFID tag. | Image Credit: Dibbiopack

Dibbiopack also designed in-mould labelling – an “IML tag” from nanofibers – that physically keeps packaging and food apart, is biodegradable, and contains an antimicrobial agent released in the event of humidity to prolong product freshness. At the same time, the IML tag provides both the consumer and manufacturer with information related to packed product quality by means of an RFID tag that acts as an oxygen sensor warning about oxygen presence in modified atmospheres. This ‘smart’ enhancement can also be used for improved traceability, since the RFID tag enables communication with smartphones and tablets. This traceability is promising both for supply chain responsibility and post-use recovery; RFID technology is also being used in the apparel and footwear industries to improve efficiency and cut waste.

Now, the Dibbiopack partners are in the process of defining the rules and intellectual property protection necessary to bring the packaging to market on a commercial scale.

Another consortium, the Plastic Packaging Recycling using Intelligent Separation technologies for Materials (PRISM) project is also working to improve plastics’ traceability to improve recovery and recycling, but is taking a much different approach.

Led by plastic recycling consultancy Nextek, PRISM is creating fluorescent materials from novel metal oxides and by converting reprocessed powders from recycled fluorescent lamps. The new luminescent materials will be able to be applied, invisibly, to labels on plastic packaging to aid the sorting process in recycling facilities.

"This could be the equivalent of an invisible barcode for plastics recycling,” said Edward Kosior, Managing Director of Nextek. “It is a significant step forward in the sub-categorization of plastics which are sorted automatically at high speed.

“It enables new initiatives from brand-owners eager to recover their packaging as part of the circular economy. Of course, it also provides a massive impetus for new businesses in the recycling sector."

Nextek is working alongside researchers from Brunel University London, the UK’s largest RPET manufacturer, Evolve Polymers (formerly ECOPlastics), resource efficiency charity WRAP, equipment manufacturer Tomra Sorting, CCL Label, Mirage Inks, Johnson Matthey and Enlightened Lamp Recycling (ELR) to develop the luminescent materials. The UK-based collaboration has been granted £772,000 (just over US $1 million) in funding over 2 years by government agency Innovate UK and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

The fluorescent label sorting system can be integrated with the near infra-red (NIR) systems used in material recovery facilities. Facilities could add UV light scanners, which would reveal a ‘unique code’ on the plastic to highlight the compounds of the material which are currently untraceable. This advancement is particularly valuable for distinguishing food-grade from non-food-grade polymers.

WRAP packaging programme area manager Claire Shrewsbury said: “The new technology could help boost recycling plant yields, and UK plastics recycling as a whole, with more efficient ways of sorting materials such as polypropylene (PP) packaging, high density polyethylene (HDPE) milk bottles and sleeved polyethylene terephthalate (PET).”

Early identification and separation trials led by WRAP achieved 97 percent yield and 95 percent purity results using the new technology. The funding will be used to develop invisible tags from powders and metal oxides to see how they react through the supply chain and whether they dissolve after processing.

Meanwhile, chemical companies BASF and Avantium have announced their intentions to establish a joint venture. The partnership will focus on the production and marketing of furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA) based on renewable resources, as well as polyethylenefuranoate (PEF) based on FDCA as its new main chemical building block.

PEF is characterized with improved barrier properties for gases such as carbon dioxide and oxygen, which can lead to longer shelf life for packaged products. The material also has higher mechanical strength than conventional plastics, meaning thinner packaging can be made and less material can be used. BASF and Avantium’s joint venture expects these properties to be useful in food and beverage packaging. After use, PEF can be recycled.

“The joint venture will further strengthen the global technology and establish the market leadership for FDCA and PEF. With BASF, we plan to start production of FDCA to enable the first commercial launch of this exciting bio-based material and to further develop and grow the market to its full potential,” said Tom van Aken, the CEO of Avantium.

The joint venture is expected to use the process developed by Avantium in its laboratories and pilot plant in the Netherlands, as well as construct a reference plant for FDCA production with an annual capacity of up to 50,000 tonnes per year at BASF’s Verbund site in Antwerp, Belgium. The companies plan to establish a leading position in FDCA and PEF, and licence the technology for industrial scale application.

Hannah Furlong is an Editorial Assistant for Sustainable Brands, based in Canada. She is researching the circular economy as a Master's student in Sustainability Management at the University of Waterloo and holds a Bachelor's in Environment and Business Co-op. Hannah… [Read more about Hannah Furlong]

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