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AAU researcher behind groundbreaking plastic upcycling project

Every year, millions of tons of plastic waste is incinerated or landfilled because there is no economic way to recycle it. Now, Associate Professor Cristiano Varrone from the Department of Chemistry and Bioscience heads an innovative new project that not only aims to recycle plastic waste but aims to upcycle it to valuable new – and easier recyclable – plastic materials.

One of the main challenges of the plastic – and recycling – industries today is the enormous variety of polymer materials used in everyday plastic products, and the fact that some products use mixed types of plastics and as such cannot be sorted and recycled.

Only around 15% of all plastic produced is recycled worldwide, and most recycling is done mechanically. In this process, the materials are usually downcycled, and the plastics can only be recycled a certain number of times.

Another method of recycling is chemical, in which the plastic materials are treated with high temperatures and chemicals to be broken down into simpler chemical units that can be used to form new plastics. However, the amount of chemicals needed means that this process is very expensive and not yet an economically feasible alternative. A new four-year project, UPLIFT, funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme and coordinated by Cristiano Varrone, may be about to change that.

Improving the properties of recycled materials

Our project aim is to develop what we call bio-chemical or biotechnological recycling, targeting exactly those plastic types that are currently not efficiently recycled. This does not require nearly as much energy, high temperatures or chemicals – but it will still allow us to break down the plastic waste into building blocks. Most importantly, it will not result in a reduction of material quality, so it will allow for infinite recycling. In fact, we will develop bioprocesses that allow for so-called upcycling, in which we improve the properties and sustainability of the materials during the recycling process,” Cristiano Varrone explains and adds:

We will integrate the obtained simpler chemical units with fermented bio-based green chemicals, and through this, we can create new, more carbon-neutral and more renewable bioplastics – which at the same time have better properties so we will need less plastic material in future products

Cross-disciplinary, holistic project consortium

In order to achieve this, Cristiano Varrone has put together a unique project consortium of leading researchers and experts from all over Europe. The consortium includes biotechnologists and polymer scientists, large-scale industrial plastic manufacturers, sustainability experts and waste management facilities, without forgetting the importance of industrial end users, policy makers, municipalities, recycling specialists and facilities, consumer associations and NGOs.

“We have aimed to target the entire value chain, because unless all the stakeholders work together, we will not succeed in making the plastic sector more sustainable. We need to make sure that there is a continuous dialogue between plastic producers, recyclers, policy makers and the consumers, because this is not only about technology. If, say, we develop new eco-plastics that cost more than fossil-based ones – who would be willing to pay for that? Would the producers use a more expensive packaging for their products? Would the consumers be willing to pay more for products in greener packaging, or would the EU states create incentives? And what would be the impact of these new materials on the recycling?” Cristiano Varrone says.

In addition to having developed the project idea and coordinated the project proposal, Cristiano Varrone leads AAU’s research on plastic biorefineries – and works as the gear that connects the project partners. He hopes that the comprehensive project will form a firm basis for a successful outcome with a huge global potential.

Our goal for the next four years is to develop technologies that can contribute to improving the amount of easy-recyclable eco-polymers and increase the current recycling efficiency. In the EU packaging sector, we have around 42% recycled now – and our aim is to reach 60%; if not within this specific project, then over the next 10 years with the contribution of the technology developed. And if I dare to dream even more, I hope that this positive effect can be expanded beyond the packaging sector, to reduce plastic waste markedly in other areas as well,” Cristiano Varrone finishes.