The UPLIFT project, a finalist in our pre-commercialized Recyclable Packaging Sustainability Awards category, is a multi-stakeholder project developed by researchers at Aalborg University which focuses on the biological depolymerization of bio- and fossil-based plastic packaging waste.
To start off, could you summarise your entry UPLIFT, in less than 50 words?
The overall idea of UPLIFT (sUstainable PLastIcs for the Food and drink packaging industry) is to biologically depolymerize bio- and fossil-based plastic packaging waste and convert it into more renewable and easily upcyclable polymers, following a biorefinery approach.
Why do you think the judges were impressed with your entry? Tell us about what is innovative about your project and / or about its impact on packaging sustainability.
Recycling facilities are currently struggling when dealing with challenging plastic multi-layers, blends, and additives. Consequently, packaging plastics are mostly landfilled, incinerated or spilled into the environment. The concept of UPLIFT is to introduce biological depolymerization technology as an addition and integration to established recycling practices, by converting persistent non-recyclable plastic waste into more easily recyclable and/or degradable polymers. This biotechnological recycling will be based on synergies between genetic and protein engineering, as well as eco-engineering of microbial mixed consortia. Overall aim is to upcycle plastic waste and produce new eco-polymers that are easier to recycle, at a pilot scale.
Innovation and impact of UPLIFT
From Biorefineries to renewable building blocks for plastics: The main idea is to integrate the fossil-based (depolymerized) plastic monomers with bio-based (fermented) building blocks, in order to obtain more carbon-neutral polymers. We call this concept a “Plastic Biorefinery”, since it combines the valorization of organic waste streams (to obtain bio-based building blocks) with the recycled fossil-derived monomers. In this way, UPLIFT will contribute to 1) increase recycling rates, and 2) the increase of bioplastics and renewable materials, thus reducing our dependency on fossil resources. The enzymatic/microbial depolymerisation of food and drink packaging has the advantage that it can be applied without the need of previous sorting of the mixed plastic waste (as is the case in conventional mechanical recycling); moreover, eventual contamination from food residues which hinders their mechanical recycling does not represent a problem in UPLIFT (but rather a source for cell growth). Furthermore, cascade enzymatic depolymerisation will reduce downstream processing complexity and cost, allowing for a stepwise release of specific monomers, instead of creating a complex soup of multiple monomers. This innovative approach has also the potential to decrease the production cost of expensive bioplastics that are currently not competitive on the market. In fact, UPLIFT preliminary results suggest that the plastic biorefinery, if coupled with increasing recycling rates, would have a beneficial effect on the economic viability of upcycled plastics. This should provide effective motivation and driving force for increasing recycling rates and suggests that the plastic biorefinery concept could play an important role in the transition to a more bio-based and circular plastics sector (1).
Designing for recyclability: Eco-design of renewable and easy-recyclable eco-polymers will pave the way to a sustainable plastic system, making packaging an available feedstock for the circular economy, also thanks to a biorefinery approach. By keeping plastic waste in the loop and integrating bio-based building blocks (instead of virgin fossil-based monomers), UPLIFT will contribute to increase the current recycling rates and the percentage of bioplastics used. At the same time, it will reduce plastic waste generation and greenhouse gas emissions associated with its production. Overall, UPLIFT will support the transition to more efficient and circular plastic sector, integrating the current mechanical and chemical recycling.
When and how do you intend to launch/commercialize this innovation?
UPLIFT technology will be tested to reach TRL 6 (large pilot scale with 1500 L reactors) by 2025. Demo and industrial scale (TRL 7-9) should be reached by 2030, with the support of our stakeholders and the industrial advisory board.
You’re shortlisted for the ‘Recyclable Packaging’ category. What do you see as the key demands, challenges and opportunities in relation to recyclable packaging?
Key demands in this category are the availability of reliable and cheap materials that are more sustainable, while at the same time maintaining all the physical/mechanical properties of the conventional commercially available packaging materials. The industry is rather reluctant to change from a mature and consolidated solution towards new and less known ones, that most likely are going to be more expensive and with the risk of having lower performance. This explains why the adoption of bioplastics is still so low on the market (together with higher costs).
Key challenges are related to the large diversity of packaging materials that make it extremely challenging to set-up an efficient recycling strategy for all. For a more sustainable packaging sector, we need to make sure to keep the material in the loop, without downcycling it. But this can be really challenging when the waste streams are so complex and diverse. In this sense, one of the biggest challenges is probably the need for clear standard and certification, as well as transparent tracking of the material flow. So just flooding the market with a large amount of new bioplastics (without considering the whole value chain and the processability for the recyclers, at the end of life) is not going to solve the problem. Another related challenge is the fact that we need to change the way we develop our value chains, going from a linear to a truly circular way. This requires that when we develop a new material, we need to design it bearing already in mind not only its application but also the end of life. We cannot keep producing polymers that last hundreds of years and then use them in single-use products (50% of all our plastic waste has a life of less than 1 year).
The opportunities are, on the other hand, related to the possibility of creating new and truly circular packaging materials that are more sustainable (also considering the recycling process) and that can include improved properties, compared to conventional plastics. Think about functionalized bioplastics that for instance contain non-toxic bacteriostatic elements, or that change color if the packaging is damaged, or that have improved barrier properties and thus allow to use less material, etc.
(1) Roux, M. and Varrone C. Assessing the economic viability of the plastic biorefinery and its contribution to a more circular plastic sector. Polymers; 2021, 13, 3883. https://doi.org/10.3390/polym13223883https://www.mdpi.com/journal/polymers