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UL’s Irish Composites Centre wins funding to tackle scourge of Plastic Waste

Researchers at the Irish Composites Centre (IComp), in University of Limerick’s Bernal Institute, have developed a solution for the conversion of waste plastic bottles into high performance composites for many applications, including car and off-the-road vehicle parts. This advanced research initiative has the potential to have a real impact on solving one of the world’s leading environmental problems – responsible disposal of used plastics – and it has won funding from Enterprise Ireland and the Environmental Protection Agency to further support its development.

As well as environmental benefits, the project is also considered to have significant commercial potential on an international basis and IComp is currently  seeking a range of industry and commercial partnerships to bring this initiative to the next level.

IComp’s work involves commercialising the recycling of the plastic material polyethylene terephthalate (PET), commonly used for water and soft drinks bottles and other single-use products, through the development of a technology that allows these plastics to be recycled into a high tensile fibre that can then be woven into a fabric. This fabric has the potential to be used in the production of high performance recyclable composite parts for the automobile and agricultural vehicle industries, for example.

In recent years, there has been a growing trend towards the use of Self-Reinforced Polymer composites (SRP), where the fibre and the matrix are the same material, for consumer goods such as high quality luggage, sports and sailing equipment, and car parts. Polymer composites are used to make high performance parts without the weight of traditional materials such as steel or even aluminium.  The newly developed IComp technology – called ’SerPET’ – will allow SRP composites to be manufactured from used plastic bottles for valuable applications, so reducing the volumes that go into landfill and into our oceans.

Speaking about the development of this technology, Dr. Walter Stanley of Irish Composites Centre (IComp) said:

“Ireland is currently the biggest producer of plastic waste in the European Union, with an average of 61 kg produced each year per person. A large proportion of this plastic is made up of single-use plastic bottles which, apart from polluting the landscape and seascape visually, also degrade over time and leach in the environment, creating many downstream problems for nature, animals and humans.”

“The technology developed by IComp aims at recycling plastic bottles (mainly PET) into a high tensile fibre which can then be used in a wide variety of value-added products. If successfully commercialised, this project would turn plastic bottles into a valuable raw material and stimulate greater recycling. It would lead to incentives for better plastic collection and separation and therefore less littering, general pollution and incineration.”

“The self-reinforced composites which IComp are currently developing are more energy efficient to process and will have a lower cost than other products on the market whilst also being significantly greener with a high level of rigidity, strength and temperature performance for many applications including car parts, which will themselves be recyclable when the cars is scrapped.”

The Irish Composites Centre was established in 2010 under the EI/IDA Technology Centres initiative. Hosted by the University of Limerick (UL), IComp is a partnership between UL, University College Dublin (UCD), Athlone Institute of Technology (AIT) and NUI Galway (NUIG). It is supported by world-class academics and a dedicated team of highly experienced researchers.

Notes to Editors:

Plastics are an important material in our economy and have become increasingly a material of choice in every-day life. Consequently, however, they can impart serious negative impacts on the environment and public health as the chemicals present in the plastics can migrate into water supplies and our oceans but also into our bodies if proper recycling of plastic waste is not prioritised and more effective. Plastic recycling is the process of recovering post-consumer products and scrap or waste plastic and reprocessing the material into useful products. Since the vast majority of plastic is non-biodegradable, recycling is a part of global efforts to reduce plastic in the waste stream.

Plastic debris in the marine environment is widely documented, but the quantity of plastic entering the ocean from waste generated on land is unknown. By linking worldwide data on solid waste, population density, and economic status, we estimate the mass of land-based plastic waste entering the ocean. It was calculated that 275 million metric tonnes (MT) of plastic waste was generated in 192 coastal countries in 2010, with 4.8 to 12.7 million MT entering the Earth’s oceans. Without waste management infrastructure improvements, the cumulative quantity of plastic waste available to enter the ocean from land is predicted to increase by an order of magnitude by 2025.

Until December 2017, the European model for dealing with plastic waste was predominantly based on incinerators (roughly 40%), landfills (around 30%) and exports (more or less 12-15%), primarily to China, Hong Kong SAR and other countries in the far-east. Growing quantities of low-grade and low-quality plastics unfit for recycling, often in the form of single use products or packaging, along with low performing separate collection schemes have led to significant under capacities for plastic recycling in Europe. The most likely plastic to be recycled in Europe usually clean and high quality. For the rest, export to countries with cheaper labour costs or reduced environmental standards was the easiest option and that mostly meant China.

Plastic packaging waste is a huge problem around the world. Despite efforts in some European countries such as plastic bottle deposit schemes or having to pay for plastic bags in the supermarket, the average EU citizen creates 31kg of plastic waste per year. Eurostat figures2 show that the UK lies above this average, with its citizens responsible for 35kg of waste. The worst country by a long way though is Ireland. 61kg of packaging is thrown away by the average Irish person, per year, 9kg more than the second most prolific country, Luxembourg. Ireland’s waste levels has already reached at a crisis level following the move by China, Beijing’s recent environmental crackdown closed the world’s biggest recycling market in January 2018.