Increased recycling of plastic from industry and healthcare
The use of plastic today is far from circular. In the best case, the plastic is recycled once before being sent to incineration. Work on recycling plastics is aimed at developing processes ensuring that the plastic can be collected and reused in new high-value products. IVL conducts several projects in the field of plastics recycling, including in industry and healthcare.
Achieving a circular economy for plastic requires new ways to use and handle it. The current way in which we consume and recycle plastic means that as a material, the plastic falls in value and quality after just one usage. Consequently, recycled plastic is most often used only in low-value products.
One project underway at IVL explores system innovation for increasing the circular use of plastic packaging from industry and business. Another focuses on single-use plastics in healthcare, a sector with high volumes of plastic waste. Both projects aim at lowering the amount of virgin fossil plastic in products, and thus reducing emissions of greenhouse gases in incineration.
Partnership to close the loop of industrial plastic
Packaging used in industry is often more homogenous and less contaminated than household packaging, and resultingly is very well suited to recycling in closed loops and to be recycled into high-quality plastic raw material.
In the innovation project Closing the loop of industrial plastics, the process for developing closed loops is tested. The project participants include manufacturers, users and recyclers. The parties work with pilot projects studying different types of plastic packaging used in business and industry. Business models for closed loops have been analysed, sustainability assessments have been conducted, and policy proposals have been developed.
The project has increased knowledge about the challenges of closing the loop in the recycling of industrial plastic packaging, which includes collection, transport/logistics, recycling technologies and reuse as industrial packaging. The knowledge will be used to develop policy proposals and public reports. The next step is to develop a solution that facilitates the scaling-up of closed loops for plastic packaging from industry.
Measurement method for assessing sterile recycling of plastic in healthcare
When recycling single use-plastics from healthcare, there is a risk that bacteria survive the recycling process and are encapsulated in the plastic. In traditional sterilization methods, the survival of bacteria is checked using agar plate cultures. However, this method is not sufficient because it does not detect bacteria encapsulated in the plastic. Therefore, the project has developed a method that gives a measurable effect of sterilization in the recycling process. This method consists of an extraction of DNA, and is verified both in the lab and on a large scale. The recipients of these results are primarily the Swedish and international plastics industries.
Increased recycling of plastic requires new ways of thinking
Businesses must change their behaviour, so that they see used plastic as a resource instead of as waste. The fact that virgin plastic is cheaper than recycled plastic can also prove a challenge. In the case of recycling single-use plastic in healthcare, there is a risk that the time and temperature required for sterilization do not match the parameters for producing plastic, if the properties critical to the function of the plastic are to be assured.
To boost the recycling of industrial plastic packaging, there must be a new, circular mindset as regards the use of plastic, as well as new business partnerships and logistics models.
The results from the innovation project "Closing the loop of industrial plastics" can be implemented by the businesses directly, or be transferred to the relevant actor.
The research results from the project on single-use plastic in healthcare can be implemented directly, and will form the basis for a new standard for sterilization in plastics recycling. Plastics manufacturers will use the new method to verify sterilization in their own processes, so that the recycling of plastics from healthcare is done in a secure fashion.
The projects' benefits for society and for the global goals
The job of increasing the recycling of plastics helps to reduce the volume of virgin fossil plastic in products, and thus to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases from incineration. For the projects to succeed and be implemented in industry and healthcare, there must be collaboration between several actors. As a result, the increased recycling of plastics contributes to sustainable consumption and production, reduced emissions of greenhouse gases, and global partnership.
Goal 12 – Responsible consumption and production
This goal concerns how humanity manages natural resources, with a focus on reducing our ecological footprint by way of more sustainable production and consumption. By increasing the recycling of plastic packaging from industry and of single-use plastics in healthcare, the projects help reduce the amount of virgin fossil plastic in products, and reduce the volume of plastic waste. The result is a more efficient and sustainable use of natural resources, and in turn a reduction in CO2 emissions from the manufacture and incineration of plastics.
Reducing emissions of greenhouse gases is an important part of fighting climate change. CO2 emissions from production and incineration of plastics can be cut by lowering the amount of virgin fossil plastic in products, and by reducing waste volumes. Industrial plastic packaging and single-use plastic in healthcare are two areas where today, the products consist almost exclusively of virgin fossil plastic, and where very little of the plastic is recycled. As a result, projects that facilitate increased recycling in these applications have a huge potential to lower emissions and achieve the target of addressing climate change.
Goal 17 – Partnerships for the goals
This goal includes targets where several parties form partnerships where they exchange knowledge, expertise, technology and financial resources, in order to achieve the goals for sustainable development. Effective partnerships between various public and private actors, and within civil society, are encouraged. The projects contribute to these goals because there must be collaboration between various actors for the implementation of the results to succeed. For instance, there must be behavioural change in the business sector, as well as tight collaboration between hospitals and plastics manufacturers.
Contributions to other global goals
The projects also tribute directly or indirectly to several other global goals, e.g. "Good health and well-being", because plastics also often contain substances that are harmful to people and the environment.