New bio-recycling routes for food packaging and plastic waste

The worldwide production of plastics is about 350 tonnes per year. The largest consuming sectors are agriculture and the food industry.
Photo: Recover

The packaging sector consumes an estimate of 40% and agricultural applications, 3.5%. After it is used, plastic waste is accumulated in natural environments due to its limited recovery and resistance to degradation. In fact, currently only the 31% of plastics entering waste management systems is recycled while the rest is incinerated or disposed of in landfills.

Moreover, microplastics derived from the decomposition of these wastes pose an additional environmental concern. In the agricultural sector alone, plastic mulch is suspected to be a major source of microplastic accumulation in terrestrial environments.

The overarching objective of the RECOVER project is to demonstrate and upscale novel bio-based approaches to dealing with the problem of agri-food waste plastics (AWPs) and help to solve the problems of contamination of agricultural fields with non-biodegradable agroplastics and by providing sustainable management pathways for the non-recyclable packaging fraction of municipal waste management systems. To achieve these objectives, it is proposed to use innovative biotechnological solutions by combining microorganisms, novel microbial enzymes, earthworms and insects in order to biotransform non-recyclable plastic packaging waste streams and agricultural films. In addition, new raw materials for the primary sector biofertilizers and the bio-based industry (chitin and chitosan) will be produced as a result. The project charts the way for future exploitation and supports the EU’s efforts to shift to circular models and tackle plastic pollution.

The RECOVER project pivots on a fresh concept where multiple species collaborate in an integrated and complementary way to either biotransform complex plastic mixtures into products or completely biodegrade and remove them.These biotechnological tools 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.

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 biorecycling 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 RECOVER project is a research and an innovative action that started on 1st June 2020 and will last four years. It brings together 17 multidisciplinary partners to develop a set of biotechnology-based processes involving the combined action of new enzymes, microbial communities, insects and earthworms for the sustainable recycling of food packaging and agricultural plastic waste streams, i.e. agri-food plastic waste, food packaging and plastic waste (AWP) and the clean-up of environments contaminated by them.

In the first 12 months, the most widespread plastic polymers in agri-food plastic waste 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.

On the 17th June we are going to have our 12M General Meeting.

In addition, RECOVER has joined forces with two other BBIJU H2020 brother projects, ENZYCLE and BIZENTE to collaborate at technical and dissemination levels; it shares synergies with Biorefine Cluster Europe, a consolidated network that interconnects projects and people in the field of bio-based resource recovery.

This project has received funding from the Bio-Based Industries Joint Undertaking under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement no 887648.


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