Post-Consumer High-tech Recycled Polymers for a Circular Economy (PolyCE)

PolyCE demonstrates on a large-scale how a Circular Economy will look for complex, sophisticated high-tech plastics from the electronics sector, covering the full recovery chain from sourcing of post-consumer plastics to recycling processes, remarketing of recycled tech-plastics and reuse in redesigned products for the sector. Currently in new products there is only a very small amount of reuse of post-consumer plastics from Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE), and at best downcycling is performed. PolyCE will pave the way through technical, management and policy approaches, also through testing the dematerialization concept, to reap the potential of post-consumer recycled plastics as a significant raw materials supply for new cutting-edge devices.

In 2013, the manufacturing of electrical and electronics equipment (EEE) consumed 2.59 Mt of fossil fuels for plastics just in Europe. Depending on the product group, EEE contains between 10 and 80 weight-% of high-tech plastics such as ABS, ABS-PC, PS, HIPS and PP. While the systems for collection, sorting and recycling of bulk scrap metals from WEEE are already well established, this is not true for plastics. Most of these plastics therefore at end of life of the EEE end up in incineration plants and at landfills, or at best are downcycled and used for low-end thick walled applications, such as outdoor furniture replacing biodegradable wood. In consequence, the overall recycling rate of plastics in waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) and reapplication similar to the original applications, e.g. in new EEE, is to date still very low. The associated negative environmental and social externalities are numerous, including Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions related to avoidable virgin plastics production, landfilling and incineration of WEEE plastics.

Despite individual players’ attempts to improve the situation, the small-scale use of recycled plastics from WEEE in new EEE is a clear sign that the PCR plastics value chain in its current condition cannot meet the requirements of a circular economy model.

Collaboration between the actors along the value chain and a fundamentally new approach are required to achieve sustainability and long-lasting improvement in the plastics lifecycle. To elaborate circular economy solutions for high-tech plastics, the PolyCE consortium brings together 19 key players from research, business and technology with distinguished expertise in every single step of the supply and value chain of high-tech plastics in EEE. The consortium as a whole covers the full plastics lifecycle, including material and additives experts, plastics compounders, manufacturing SMEs and large electronics industry, WEEE collection and compliance schemes, the largest closed-loop plastics recycler in Europe, a global testing and certification organisation and experts in plastics market uptake.

In meeting the needs of the challenges associated with end of life plastics, Prof Margaret Bates (Faculty of Arts, Science and Technology) and Liam Fassam (Institute of Logistics, Infrastructure, Supply and Transport) at the University of Northampton, have designed and been awarded a research grant from the European Commission (Horizon 2020) to work with stakeholders such as Fraunhofer, United Nations University and Phillips (amongst others) on ground breaking research.

A central part of PolyCE is the demonstration of large-scale reapplication of PCR plastics from WEEE in several electronic applications, such as modular smartphone, washing machines, LED lighting application and 3D printing. Getting there requires further demonstrators along the supply chain, proving the feasibiliity of the improvement of the WEEE supply chain from collection to recycling, and developing better recyclable plastics materials.

To achieve a long-lasting impact beyond the project, PolyCE activities adopt a holistic approach to:

  1. Build strategic partnerships across the value chain by engaging all the actors, from production to re-use and/or recycling and create industrial symbiosis and knowledge transfer to other relevant sectors
  2. Enhance the market uptake of PCR plastics, e.g. by expending an existing online market platform
  3. Innovate collection, reverse logistics, pre-treatment and recycling of WEEE plastics
  4. Develop uniform and standardized technical requirements and grades for PCR plastics as well as testing procedures ensuring the quality of the recycled plastics
  5. Develop innovative plastic materials and additives, which are able to sustain their quality over multiple use and recycling cycles
  6. Apply circular business models, e.g. the dematerialisation concept, i.e. the purchase of the services instead of the product itself
  7. Build awareness amongst the public, electronics designers and manufacturers. Integrate lifecycle thinking into higher education

Key objectives of PolyCE are to demonstrate circular economy solutions based on re-design of value and supply chain for plastics contained in WEEE. PolyCE will contribute to the development of value-added solutions that will act as a driver for increasing EU competitiveness and move European societies towards sustainability.

This research is crucial in mitigating societal risk to communities locally and globally, with outcomes of this study feeding into closed loop circular economy processes across Europe and beyond.

If you would like further information about this research project, please contact the Project Leaders, Prof. Margaret Bates or Liam Fassam by emailing margaret.bates@northampton.ac.uk or liam.fassam@northampton.ac.uk or by calling 01604 892625 or 01604 892320.