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sUstainable PLastIcs for the Food and drink packaging indusTry

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - UPLIFT (sUstainable PLastIcs for the Food and drink packaging indusTry)

Reporting period: 2021-03-01 to 2022-08-31

Every year, 368 million tonnes of plastic are produced worldwide (2018), and that number is growing by the year. However, only 13% of all plastic is actually recycled, worldwide. In fact, while mechanical recycling is a valuable solution for relatively clean and pure streams, recycling facilities are currently struggling when dealing with challenging mixed plastic waste, multi-layers, blends, and additives. Consequently, plastics are too often landfilled, incinerated or spilled into the environment.
Societal relevance of the plastic problem:
According to new studies, plastic leaking into the ocean is contributing to the death for 1 million of sea birds and 100000 sea animals, yearly. Microplastics is accumulating along the food chain and has been reported already in human blood. Moreover, it is estimated that by 2050 the production and incineration of plastics could release up to 2.8 gigatons of CO2 per year (equivalent to the emissions from more than 600 coal plants). New reports also predict that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish biomass in the Sea and that plastic production will use up 20% of the global oil consumption.
Need for a different approach:
The development of new biotechnological recycling solution could contribute to alleviating this problem, by converting mixed plastic waste into more easily recyclable and/or degradable polymers. This is where the UPLIFT team comes into play. UPLIFT is a H2020 4-year collaborative research project, involving 15 partners that will work together to develop a more sustainable plastic packaging value chain in the Food and Drink sector, by applying novel biochemical upcycling technology routes and eco-design strategies. More in concrete, UPLIFT will bio-upcycle 10-20 Kg of real plastic waste into new eco-polymers to produce packaging materials, such as flexible films, drinking bottles and rigid packaging that are more carbon neutral and easier to recycle.
The ongoing research activity is focusing on the optimization of enzymatic depolymerization of polyesters through protein engineering and in-silico modelling, as well as the genetic engineering of microbial and fungal strains for the upcycling of the plastic monomers into novel interesting compounds and/or bioplastics. Polyolefin degradation through mixed consortia is also tested. Moreover, production of bio-based building blocks through fermentation technology is under investigation. Process optimization, intensification and up-scaling has already started for some selected technologies, which allowed to obtain enough pure products to be tested in the subsequent eco-design for repolymerization. Preliminary tests on commercially available monomers for synthesis of new eco-polymers has also started, as has the preparation of preliminary techno-economic and LCA models to identify the best processes to scale up. Some highly promising technologies have been identified and are most likely to reach a high impact and TRL in the coming years.
Moreover, analysis of the existing plastic value chain, the market and initial process design was also performed. Last but not least, the partners involved in the scale-up have already started all the preparatory actions and booking of large-scale facilities, needed for testing the best processes on pilot scale.
Until now, the consortium has published 8 peer-reviewed articles in open access international journals. The complete list is available at our website, at the following link:
Moreover, UPLIFT attended 21 external events, where we presented the project, and three newsletters were released.
Together with the BIOTECH09 cluster (UPLIFT, PRESERVER and UpPE-T) we organized 2 workshops and an international PhD Summer School on Plastic Biorefinery and Upcycling, where the young researchers of the three sister projects could meet and work together, forming the basis for the network of the future EU plastic experts.
Furthermore, UPLIFT was also nominated as a finalist of the Sustainability Awards 2022, in the category “recyclable packaging”, thus underlining our dissemination effort.
Last but not least, we have organized approximately 20 internal project meetings to guarantee a continuous dialogue, alignment among the WPs and activities and flow of material and technologies.
UPLIFT will develop and scale -up 2-3 innovative bio-upcycling processes that integrate fossil-based plastic monomers (obtained by biochemical depolymerization) with bio-based (fermented) building blocks, in order to obtain more carbon-neutral polymers. We call this concept a “Plastic Biorefinery”, since it can combine the valorization of organic waste streams (to obtain bio-based building blocks) with the valorization fossil-derived monomers from plastic waste. The expected result is the production of 10-20Kg of bioplastics that has improved properties for food and drink packaging and is easier to recycle.
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). Besides, 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.
The UPLIFT 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. Bioupcycling PET into PET or PTT would for instance allow to obtain recycled rPEF and rPTT at lower cost than rPET. This should provide effective motivation and driving force to increase 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. In other words, increasing the recycling rates of eco-polymers obtained through an UPLIFT biorefinery approach can actually decrease production costs and thus convince producers and consumers to become part of a much needed joint recycling effort. This is the opposite of what we observe in the fossil-based plastics, where recycled materials often cost more than those obtain from virgin resources.
Designing for recyclability: Eco-design of renewable and easy-recyclable ecopolymers 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 UPLIFT will reduce plastic waste generation and greenhouse gas emissions associated with its production. Overall, the project will support the transition to more efficient and circular plastic sector, integrating the current mechanical and chemical recycling.
UPLIFT upcycling concept