1 October 2018

‘First Trials and Testing for CIRC-PACK’ – Q&A with CIRCE’s Montserrat Lanero

With the half-way mark fast approaching for the CIRC-PACK project, CIRCPACK.EU spoke to project manager Montserrat Lanero of CIRCE to update us on the latest news, and the big challenges bringing CIRC-PACK innovations into the mainstream as Europe confronts its circular economy agenda.

In a nutshell, can you remind us what CIRC-PACK set out to achieve?

At its heart, this project aims to transform the plastic packaging value chain from a ‘linear’ to a ‘circular’ value chain. That’s why we are applying a number of innovations along the value chain throughout the project -  addressing the decoupling of materials from fossil-based feedstocks, the reduction of environmental impact, and of course the creation of an effective after-use economy. We are also focusing on the design of the plastic products – mainly packaging products – in order to make them easier to sort and recycle. In this way, we can increase the recovery of plastic waste and reduce the quantity of plastics that go to landfill. This is of course very much in keeping with European Union circular economy objectives – and throughout the project we are keeping abreast of every EU recommendation in this area, in addition to asking our colleagues in the institutions for feedback regarding project developments.

What do you mean by innovations? What’s new about this project?

We want to replace polymers that are based on fossil resources with bio-based polymers. We will also try to create packaging that is biodegradable. CIRC-PACK will also generate products for applications that cover sectors other than food packaging – sectors such as automotives and hygienic products. Furthermore, the CIRC-PACK project also involves packaging composed of cardboard. And of course we’ll try to improve the very design of the packaging so that it will be better suited for collection. All of this involves extensive collaboration with all stakeholders in the value chain, and of course new business models that make it easier to evaluate the ways we use plastic waste.

How is this a ‘win’ for Europe as a whole?

Through the use of bio-based products we can decouple the plastic sector from fossil resources. In this way we can contribute to a circular economy and a greener economy in general, as well as to overall decarbonisation. Also, with collaboration among actors in the plastic packaging value chain, we can increase resource productivity. And as we design and produce our value-added materials (and even more conventional items), we’ll be reducing the volume of plastic waste that goes to landfill, thus increasing recycling rates. You see, the innovations developed in this project could be applied in every sector that involves plastic, not just packaging. For example, electronic appliances and construction!

We are nearly half way through the CIRC-PACK project. What is the latest?

I can confirm that we have developed an evaluation methodology to assess the economic, social and environmental impact of each the innovations in the value chain. This has been conducted by CIRCE. Crucially, we are also performing our first trials in order to check that our materials are of the necessary quality to create new packaging products. This quality testing is vital to the project. And of course at the end of the trials we will have our first prototypes of a range of different bio-based products. But we are also involving European consumers in this process – this from the outset of the project. When CIRC-PACK started, we were clear that we had to know consumers’ expectations of our products, and also to assess their knowledge of the impact of these products – environmental or otherwise! So we will be comparing our baseline scenario of consumer expectations, with new reactions to the products being tested right now.

At this crucial time, what are the big challenges you have faced?

The main problem for the CIRC-PACK project is the lack of lack of homogeneity. By that I mean that the rules of the game are different in every country: plastic waste collection is different, and the separation of waste is different in every country we work in. So it is difficult to provide recommendations that are currently applicable in every country. In reality, countries are at different stages. For example, in two municipalities in the CIRC-PACK consortium, Rijeka in Croatia and Kartal in Turkey, as yet waste separation practices are not as advanced as in other municipalities. To address this long-term, we would like to provide achievable recommendations so that these municipalities can increase recovery rates. The same goes for awareness of the environmental impact of plastic packaging. This is something we are doing at a European level, for everyone. And finally there was always the risk that the trials didn’t yield the desired results or quality. But in short, we have actually achieved what we wanted and we can continue our progress on a sound footing.

You mention local authorities such as Rijeka and Kartal. How do towns and cities stand to benefit from this project?

In terms of the environmental impact of plastic packaging, we believe that CIRC-PACK can really increase awareness among consumers in Europe’s towns and cities, but also among local authorities and public administrations. These actors could certainly benefit from project recommendations and enhance their current policies on plastic packaging. And of course we may have local authorities with low plastic waste recovery rates. This is an issue. But we can help them through knowledge transfer to improve recovery rates.

Finally, how will the European consumer benefit from CIRC-PACK innovations?

We will increase their awareness of the environmental impact of plastic packaging so we can reduce the impact of these materials. But crucially, through our innovations, consumers will be avoiding the use of non-renewable materials. With CIRC-PACK, we have been collaborating with consumers from the beginning to take into account their expectations of future products, and what they want to see from us and other actors in the  ‘lower impact’ packaging market. In the end, we will have more useful materials, and better quality materials. This is key for consumers and the environment.