How can we deliver a circular economy for novel materials?

The UK Government must embed circular economy thinking within its industrial strategy and place a particular focus on encouraging the recycling and recovery of 'novel' materials such as bioplastics and carbon fibre, a new report has claimed.

The report, titled Getting it right from the start, was produced by think tank Green Alliance on behalf of the Government’s innovation agency Innovate UK. It investigates the resource productivity of novel materials used in products, which can be hard to separate and recycle.

Carbon fibre composites used in cars, bioplastics used in packaging and additive manufacturing technologies such as 3D printing will disrupt existing recycling systems and create new waste problems in the future, unless they are designed for a circular economy and made ready for recycling and re-use early in their development, the report finds.

“Our work shows both the threat and opportunity of novel materials, with action needed now to avoid disrupting established resource management systems and increasing the waste of materials,” said Green Alliance’s senior policy advisor Jonny Hazell, who authored the report.

“But, equally, addressing this problem will improve productivity and have employment benefits, through developing high value materials and keeping them in use for longer.

“If it promotes a circular economy as part of its industrial strategy, the Government will go a long way towards boosting employment and economic prospects, not just for scientists and engineers, but for small businesses around the country as well.”

Circular conundrum

Novel materials – those materials that are in some way new to the industrial system – offer significant benefits to technologies and products. Carbon fibre enables lighter weight, more fuel-efficient vehicles; bioplastics promise to be superior to fossil fuel derived plastics; and additive manufacturing will be at the heart of the next generation of industry, the report notes.

But these materials, which also include nanoparticles, graphene and the rare earth elements, also “have a sting in the tail”, according to the report – they can make it harder to recover value from products that have been thrown away. When novel materials are used in products for which there is no collection system, they are likely to end up in the residual waste stream.

“Unless they can be dealt with effectively in the waste stream, novel materials will be discarded as residual waste at best or will contaminate existing value recovery systems at worst,” it states. “Given the growing concerns about environmental impacts and resource limits, this is environmentally and economically unsustainable.”

But there are solutions: early consideration of a material’s capacity for re-use, remanufacturing and recycling can help lower costs for British manufacturers and increase their competitiveness, according to the report.

Opportunity knocks

And there are also some key opportunities: increasing the quality and quantity of recycled carbon fibres would enable more manufacturers to use the material; using more waste materials and by-products to make bioplastics would help UK agricultural, food and drink sectors lower their waste costs; and commercialising bioplastic production from waste would also mean British manufacturers could compete with the Brazilian sugar cane and subsidised US corn that dominate current supply chains.

“Taking carbon fibre as an example, a successful recycling supply chain in the UK would mean cheaper inputs for manufacturers, helping them to break into new markets for applications where the material was previously too expensive and compete better on cost and quality,” the report adds. “Failing to develop this will leave UK manufacturers almost entirely dependent on imports, increasing their exposure to global price volatility. It also closes off the chance to export UK expertise in both recovering and re-using fibres.”

To realise the opportunities of novel materials within a circular economy, the Green Alliance claims that the UK’s industrial strategy – which was proposed by the Government last month – should support new technologies and sectors in three ways: providing support and information for designers and manufacturers to think through the whole lifecycle of their materials; supporting collaboration between sectors and along supply chains to develop new applications for recovered materials; and funding research into more recyclable materials and new recovery technologies.

Luke Nicholls

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