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Can bio-recycling answer burning questions regarding plastic waste?

The worldwide production of plastics is about 350 tonnes per year. At the same time, only an estimated 31% of plastics entering waste management systems is actually recycled. The new the RECOVER project has been established to demonstrate and upscale innovative bio-based approaches to tackle the problem of ‘non-recyclable’ plastic scrap.

Researchers working on the 4-year R&D project propose combining micro organisms, novel microbial enzymes, earthworms and insects in order to ‘bio-transform’ problematic plastic food packaging waste streams and agricultural films. This means eithercompletely biodegrading or removing them. In addition, the process will produce new raw materials for the primary sector, such as biofertilisers. The initiative charts the way for future exploitation and supports the EU’s efforts to shift to circular models and tackle plastic pollution.

The biotechnological tools used are:

  • Enzymes, developed using a synthetic biology approach
  • Microbial consortia that attack mixed plastic waste under different environmental conditions
  • Insects and earthworms whose natural ability to ingest and digest plastics will be enhanced by reinforcing their natural microbiome with probiotics

Treatment scenarios

These biotechnological processes will be developed in two scenarios: ex situ treatment in insect rearing chambers or compost reactors for non-recyclable plastics from municipal solid waste or agricultural plastic waste; and in situ treatment directly on soils contaminated with plastics, such as mulching films.

In the framework of the project, an appropriate waste collection and delivery strategy to the bio-recycling plant will be proposed with the help of decision support systems, plastic monitoring tools, equipment and logistical studies. Simple and replicable conditions that can be replicated in farms or municipalities will also be established.

The EU Horizon 2020 project was launched in June last year. Researchers are citing promising findings. In the first 12 months, the most widespread plastic polymers in agricultural and food packaging have been mapped and characterised. The logistics chain for their collection and current handling practices have been analysed and reviewed.

A set of insects, earthworms, microbial consortia and families of target enzymes have also been selected; and their ability to feed on or hydrolyse the target polymers is being tested. In the coming months, the production of suitable biotechnological solutions will be scaled up and tested under full-scale conditions.

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