The funding will be offered to research and development projects aimed at developing waste-based plastics, as well as concepts which would enable manufacturers to use a higher proportion of recycled content in their plastic packaging.

Projects developing “smart” packaging labels which could help consumers or recycling technology sort packaging more efficiently, and those researching “live” labels which tell shoppers how fresh their product is in real-time, will also be eligible to receive a share.

The money, which forms part of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s (BEIS) £1.7bn Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, will be awarded to projects on a competitive basis, with the department set to launch its first competition in early 2019.

In addition to the funding, winning projects will be given the chance to partner with a team of experts from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) in order to access advice on best-practice and scaling up their operations.

BEIS has also launched its highly anticipated bioeconomy sector strategy today, outlining the role biotechnology will play in achieving the aims of the Industrial Strategy. The strategy, which has been 18 months in the making following a public consultation in 2016, seeks to balance the carbon and resource benefits that can be reaped from biomaterial use with potential negative impacts on food security and biodiversity.

Energy Minister Claire Perry said the funding and sector strategy would “enhance” the UK’s leadership position in its approach to tackling resource and climate challenges.

“Finding innovative solutions to tackle our use of harmful plastics which blight our land and seas is a major global challenge and opportunity – one our nation of researchers and innovators is fit to seize,” Perry said.

“This will make us a beacon for design, manufacturing and exporting of sustainable plastics and environmentally-friendly replacements for polluting products as we move to a greener, cleaner economy – a key part of our modern Industrial Strategy.”

Bioplastics boon

Global PET production was 18.8 million tonnes in 2017 and has a market value of around £40bn. But on a wider scale, as much as $80bn-$120bn of plastic packaging material value is lost to the economy, usually ending up in the marine environment.  

In a bid to shift away from fossil-fuel-based plastics, companies including Reebok and Lego have moved to incorporate bioplastics into their products in recent months, while the likes of Kellogg, Hovis and Bulldog Skincare have begun introducing sugarcane-based polymers to their packaging portfolios.

However, bioplastic critics have been quick to cite the ethical and environmental pitfalls of using farmland to grow plants for plastics rather than produce, with companies including Sainsbury’s refusing to use crop-based plastics in their packaging or products.

Several innovations aiming to tackle the problems of plastics pollution and food supply chain sustainability have therefore emerged in recent months. The University of Toronto Scarborough, for example, has developed a system for recycling food waste into a compostable polymer, while researchers at Sweden’s Lund University have developed an alternative material made from waste potato peelings and water.

Similarly, BT’s former chief sustainability officer Niall Dunne’s disruptive plastics startup, Polymateria, was recently awarded £1m in Innovate UK funding to help scale up its operations.

Dunne famously said his aim in setting up the company was to create the “Tesla of Plastics”, developing biodegradable polymers which break down into natural materials rather than microplastics.

Sarah George

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