Plastics in the adolescent stage: “There’s still a lot of room for improvement”

Kim Ragaert

Plastics in the adolescent stage: “There’s still a lot of room for improvement”

The societal impact of UM research

28-02-2024 · Interview

In today’s world, the societal impact of research findings seems more important than getting published in an academic journal like Nature or The Lancet. What impact has research conducted at UM had in recent years? This week: how UM researchers are helping industry improve plastics recycling.

“A lot of supermarkets have replaced plastic trays with cardboard for deli meats. This makes customers feel like they’re doing their part to help the environment, but the opposite is actually true. Cardboard trays are often coated in plastic, making both the paper and the plastic more difficult to recycle”, says Kim Ragaert, who has been a professor of Circular Plastics at the Faculty of Science and Engineering (FSE) since 2021.

So why do supermarkets opt for these trays? Ragaert rubs her thumb over the tip of her index finger. Money, that’s why. “Even though they know better, companies respond to consumer demands. And plastic has a bad reputation, when in fact it’s often the best solution – not always, but more often than you’d think. Plastic trays, for example, are simply very useful for preserving food.”

A world without plastics would therefore be unrealistic. A more effective approach to reducing carbon emissions would be to improve reuse and recycling. “There’s still a lot of room for improvement”, says Ragaert, taking a sip from her reusable coffee cup. Recycling rates are significantly higher for traditional waste streams, such as paper and glass. “Plastic is still in the adolescent stage. Globally, only 9 per cent of plastic waste is recycled. Europe – and the Netherlands in particular – is doing better at 30 to 40 per cent, but we must push these rates higher.”

Incinerator

However, this won’t be an easy task. There are lots of different types of plastics, each with its own properties. And this number will only continue to increase with the advancement of biobased plastics (produced without fossil fuels) and biodegradable plastics (compostable, but not necessarily biobased). This complicates matters, as Ragaert points out. “Take PET plastic, used for amongst others soft drink bottles, and PLA bioplastic made from corn starch. They are chemical similar, which makes them often difficult to separate in waste processing plants. And incorrect separation has a negative impact on recycling – PLA reduces the quality of recycled PET.”

Moreover, recycling is a numbers game. “It’s economically viable only in large quantities. Many new types of plastics have not yet reached critical mass and often end up in the incinerator instead.” Again, ignorance often plays a role. “During my time at Ghent University, the cafeteria proudly introduced biodegradable disposable soup cups. But what’s the point if people toss them in the bin anyway? They just get incinerated.”

Shampoo bottle

Ragaert sees raising awareness as part of her mission, not just by educating consumers but also by advising governments and industry. “For example, we advise on the best ways to use biodegradable plastics – not in soup cups, but in compostable products like tea bags or coffee pads. We also advise on ways to make recycling bioplastics profitable, encouraging collaboration rather than competition. So many companies focus solely on their own product. It would be better if they all focused on one type of bioplastic, working together to make it economically viable.”

And she doesn’t just advise industry. Ragaert’s research group on the Brightlands Chemelot Campus in Geleen actively collaborates with companies. “Some products contain several types of plastics. We’re researching the best ways to recycle these products. One of our PhD students is focusing on a recycled shampoo bottle with a cap made of a harder type of plastic. How does recycling them together affect quality? The company will be able to use the findings to determine whether it’s worth the cost and effort to separate the cap from the bottle during the recycling process.” They also do research on reusable products. “For example, how can chip containers be cleaned hundreds of times without releasing harmful substances?”

Worth the investment

Which of their findings have already been put into practice? Ragaert can’t give specific examples, citing competition concerns. Doesn’t this go against the purpose of scientific research? “We do publish our results, just without disclosing company names or specific commercial names of plastics types. So our research definitely has scientific value. Besides, we don’t just experiment with materials to find out which works best; we also want to find out what’s happening at the molecular level. But if you focus solely on the latter, no one will care about your research. We want our research to have a social impact. By collaborating with industry, we hope our findings can always be implemented within a few years.”

Are there any examples she can share? Brands like Samsonite and Philips have already released suitcases and vacuum cleaners, respectively, made from recycled plastic, helped by research Ragaert did when she was at Ghent University. And there is one UM example she can share: research they conducted for CEFLEX, a European consortium focusing on flexible packaging materials like sandwich bags and crisp packets. “We tried out a new, more expensive, system to filter these plastics from household waste and process them into high-quality new products. It proved to be worth the investment. A demonstration plant is currently being developed for large-scale application.”
 

Kim Ragaert is one of the three finalists for the 2024 Prince Friso Engineering Prize. The winner, to be named “Engineer of the Year”, will be announced on 13 March. Next to a jury prize, also a public prize will be awarded. You can cast your vote until 10 March on www.prinsfrisoingenieursprijs.nl/finalisten

There is also a Maastricht nomination for the 'student version' of this award, which can also be voted for: Team SublimeStone, with students from the Maastricht Science Programme, Systems Biology and University College Maastricht. This team developed a method to repair cracks in limestone using bacteria.

Photo: Ellen Oosterhof

Categories: news_top, Science
Tags: societal impact,kim ragaert,plastic,recycling,chemelot,brightlands,research,instagram

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