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Sustainable Packaging Q3 2023

We’re changing our relationship with plastic packaging — for the better

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Dr Paul Davidson

Director, Smart Sustainable Plastic Packaging Challenge, UK Research and Innovation

We’ve all seen the projections, and they’re shocking. More plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050 (by weight),1 is just one example. Despite this, the use of plastics, and the resulting plastic waste is projected to almost triple globally by 2060.2

In tackling a challenge of this size and complexity, it is increasingly clear that multiple interventions, systemic change and significant investment are needed. The good news, however, is that innovation is playing an increasingly vital role. There are myriad exciting developments and breakthroughs on the horizon, from edible packaging films to novel recycling technologies, and the latest in AI and robotics to identify, track and sort plastic packaging to enable greater circularity.

Helping to drive progress and de-risk much-needed investment is UKRI’s £60 million Smart Sustainable Plastic Packaging Challenge (SSPP), the largest and most ambitious UK Government investment to date in sustainable plastics research and innovation. With over 80 funded projects and an expected £220 million raised in match funding from industry, SSPP is prioritising interventions in a number of key areas.

We must mainstream ‘reuse and refill’

Many of the world’s largest brands and retailers are already exploring the opportunities for reusing and refiling; but developing a model that works at scale for the whole supply chain, and most importantly for consumers, remains a challenge. To overcome these barriers, SSPP is funding a number of projects, including a major consortium project to create a standardised, full supply chain solution to deliver refills at scale for key food staples and household products. With multi-store trials starting this autumn, it is hoped that this universal end-to-end solution will become an open-source industry standard that can be used anywhere in the world.

Closing the loop for food packaging

Thanks to legislation and fiscal incentives, such as the UK’s Plastic Packaging Tax, high-quality, food-grade recycling — where plastic packaging waste can be recycled to a standard fit for use in new food packaging — is coming on at pace. With funding from SSPP, a groundbreaking mechanical recycling plant for food-grade polypropylene — used in food packaging such as pots and trays — is due to open in autumn 2023. Also due to be fully commissioned this year in Teeside is a world-first chemical recycling plant, which recycles mixed plastics back into the molecular building blocks for virgin plastic production.

Films and flexible packaging under scrutiny

Often dubbed the ‘final frontier of plastics recycling,’ films and flexibles are under the spotlight like never before. SSPP is funding innovation at every stage of these packaging types’ life cycles — from material innovation to collection and recycling, including the UK’s biggest flexible plastic household collection and recycling pilot.

All these innovations will support the growing global push to deliver a step change in our relationship with plastic packaging, and we’re proud to be part of this change.

[1] Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2016
[2] Global Plastics Outlook: Policy Scenarios to 2060, 2022

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