£1.2 million innovation funding and a knowledge exchange network to stimulate global collaboration are just two ways in which the UK is working with international partners to help catalyse change and tackle the problem of plastic packaging waste.
Reducing plastic waste, and finding more sustainable approaches to how we use and manage plastics in our everyday lives in the future, is one of the big challenges facing the world today.
Encompassing environmental impacts ranging from aquatic and land-based plastic pollution through to CO2 emissions and resource consumption, as well as health and biodiversity concerns linked to microplastics, it is a challenge that respects no borders and demands innovation and collaborative action between governments, industry, and society.
It is timely, therefore, that this week, the International Circular Plastics Flagship Competition – delivered by UK Research and Innovation and climate change charity WRAP – has announced the award of £1.2 million to six UK-based innovators and their partners in India, Chile, South Africa and Kenya to tackle plastic packaging waste.
The funding will support technical innovation to address specific barriers to reducing waste identified in each of the four countries, including films and flexible packaging, reusable packaging, new business models, and end market development.
This initiative is just the start, however. It heralds a much broader global innovation support push that recognises the compelling need for rapid, targeted and collaborative action, and is directly aligned to the aims of the UN Global Resolution to end plastic pollution.
Signed in March, the resolution paves the way for the development of an international legally binding agreement by the end of 2024 that encompasses the full lifecycle of plastic, including its production, design and disposal. Innovation and collaboration will be critical to achieving the step change signalled by this game-changing agreement.
Commitment to action
The UK has been clear in its intention to act on the problem of plastic pollution. Launching the 25 Year Environment Plan in January 2018, then Prime Minister Theresa May called plastic pollution “one of the great environmental scourges of our time” and the Plan not only set out ambitions for domestic reforms to reduce plastic waste but articulates the UK’s intentions to “take on an even more prominent international role in protecting the planet”.
Published a year later, the Resources & Waste Strategy for England 2018 also included a series of commitments to underpin the government’s ambitions, including to:
- drive international political commitments through the Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance;
- support developing nations to tackle pollution and reduce plastic waste; and
- tackle international barriers to a circular economy.
UKRI’s International Research and Innovation Strategy is aligned to these goals, and includes commitments to maximising the impact of UK research to help address the world’s greatest challenges, with a particular focus on the thematic priority of Clean Environment, Sustainable Growth.
Investment through its £60 million Smart Sustainable Plastic Packaging Challenge is already establishing the UK as a leading innovator in smart and sustainable plastic packaging solutions and the aim now is to promote business-led innovation and commercialisation from the UK with global partners, harnessing their collective power to find more sustainable solutions to the problem of plastic waste.
Demand-led innovation on a global scale
Against this backdrop, a unique partnership has taken shape to deliver and share much needed research and innovation to help make these actions and ambitions a reality.
The cornerstone is WRAP’s work, enabled and supported by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, to establish an international network of 11 Plastics Pacts that bring together businesses across the entire plastics packaging value chain to create a circular economy for plastics. Building on the UK Plastics Pact, launched in 2018, Plastic Pacts have now been set up around the world, including Europe, North America, South America, Asia and Africa.
With sign-up from many global consumer brands such as Danone, Coca Cola and Unilever, the Plastic Pact model is a highly visible, collective accountability mechanism that provides a framework to set ambitious targets to reduce plastic packaging waste and deliver best practice in circular supply chains. Shaped and driven through local partners and stakeholders, each Pact is tailored to address the country’s specific challenges and conditions.
Driving change on the scale that is needed, however, requires innovation. Recognising this, UKRI, the SSPP Challenge, the Innovate UK Global Team and WRAP saw an opportunity to enhance UK collaboration with Plastic Pact partners worldwide.
The Plastic Pacts in each country act as an anchor for the programme, defining the targets to reduce plastic pollution as well as specific barriers and ‘live’ problems faced by the plastic packaging supply chain.
This drives the demand for innovation which the programme meets by sourcing innovative solutions to address these barriers with the aim of accelerating progress towards the Plastic Pact targets.
Focused on Asia, Africa and Latin America, the initiative will act as a catalyst for collaboration, bringing together innovators, investors, key industry stakeholders and the relevant Plastic Pact signatories and in-country stakeholders.
Jo Hill, Innovate UK’s Innovation Lead for Emerging Economies, explains: “UKRI is helping to grow the network of Plastic Pacts, aligning stakeholders and industry in a shared vision to reduce plastic pollution globally.
“The Pact targets agreed by brands, retailers and manufacturers to reduce plastic packaging waste will require innovative solutions so this is a key starting point to inform our work.”
The SSPP Challenge has a very tangible contribution to make, as Innovation Lead Sara Banning explains: “The SSPP Challenge can help to provide the connectivity that catalyses plastics R&D relationships between the UK and key emerging markets.
“SSPP has sight of the wealth of innovation in plastics within the UK and is able to help initiate relationships with potential overseas partners looking to diversify their business, as well as accelerate shared learning around what is helping and hindering innovation.”
Building the capability
In 2021, India became the first Asian country to develop a Pact. Facilitated by WRAP, with £279,000 support from UKRI and the SSPP Challenge, the India Plastics Pact is a managed by WWF India and the Confederation of Indian Industry. The UKRI grant helped WRAP to establish the Pact, engage the Indian government, and develop the appropriate targets for the Indian economy.
UKRI funding has also supported the development of Plastics Pacts in South Africa, Kenya, and Chile, and the aim now is to build further momentum.
New Plastic Pacts
Two new Plastic Pacts are being established in Colombia and Mexico, which have been selected due to population, the size and nature of the plastic waste problem and local interest. These, as well as the existing Pacts in India, Kenya, South Africa and Chile, will be supported to stimulate collaboration, pilot new approaches, identify technical experts required to deliver innovations, and engage Pact members in adopting solutions.
The Plastic Pacts will define specific challenges that require innovation in order to meet their targets of reducing plastic packaging waste and pollution. SMEs will then be supported to work directly with Pact members to conduct innovation pilots to address these challenges. The £1.2 million funding announced under the International Circular Plastics Flagship Competition is the part of this work.
The aim of the funding is to enable UK innovators and international partners to collaborate alongside global Plastic Pact members to address the following goals that underpin the targets:
- tackling unnecessary and problematic single-use plastic packaging;
- increasing the rate of plastic packaging that is reusable, recyclable or compostable;
- improving mechanisms to collect, recycle and valorise plastic packaging, excluding incineration;
- increasing recycled and responsibly sourced bio-based content in packaging;
- developing best practice in circular supply chains reducing carbon intensity of plastic packaging; and
- engaging with UKRI-wide programmes focused on plastic-related research.
International knowledge exchange network
A Plastic Pact knowledge exchange network will be launched in the coming months to co-ordinate collaboration and learning across the Pact network and share best practice and innovative approaches. Through the SSPP Challenge and UKRI, a pipeline of the best and most relevant innovations from the UK will be showcased to the network, such as current SSPP projects that are looking to:
- develop a common data standard and online platform to enable the accurate reporting of plastic packaging material placed on the market and improve the quality of data available across the entire value chain.
- tackle unnecessary and problematic single-use plastic packaging by assessing the use of an edible plant-based protein to address the rise in plastic sachet
- investigate the application of ultra-low-cost radio frequency identification technology to track reusable food-grade plastic packaging to encourage reuse and enabling scalable infrastructure.
Showcasing these, and further innovations from Pact partners as the initiative develops, will stimulate collaboration and access to new markets. By engaging Pact members, innovators, governments and municipalities, NGOs, and impact investors, the network will demonstrate how innovation can contribute directly to reaching the Plastic Pact targets.
It will also allow the sharing of knowledge and research, including a number of soon-to-be-published technical research projects that have been funded to dive deeper into the challenges facing the Plastic Pact members, including sachets and small packaging formats, refill and re-use models, the use of recycled PET in food grade packaging, and the role of informal waste workers in driving up recycling.
The scale of the task is huge but so too is the potential for positive change, as Jo Hill notes: “We are tapping into and supporting the significant opportunity for innovation that is emerging; a 2020 Accenture report suggests there will be a $100 billion market for sustainable plastic packaging in India alone by 2030.
“Partnering up with and supporting the global network of Plastic Pacts will drive demand-led innovation and accelerate the pathway to scaled-up solutions to help end plastic waste.”