Risk that novel materials will be the landfill of the future

Thursday 2 February 2017

Novel materials, like carbon fibre and bioplastics, can be stronger, lighter and less resource intensive than traditional materials, so will be key to the low carbon, resource efficient economy the government’s new industrial strategy is striving for.
The UK is already ahead of the game and a world leader in materials science. But new research from think tank Green Alliance, on behalf of Innovate UK, the High Value Manufacturing Catapult and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, [1] [2] shows that, unless they are designed for a circular economy, and made ready for recycling and reuse early in their development, new materials could disrupt existing recycling systems and create new waste problems in the future.
The report Getting it right from the start: the circular economy for novel materials looked at examples like carbon fibre composites used in cars, bioplastics for packaging and additive manufacturing technologies such as 3D printing. It shows how early consideration of a material’s capacity for reuse, remanufacturing and recycling can help lower costs for British manufacturers and increase their competitiveness.
For example:

• Increasing the quality and quantity of recycled carbon fibres would enable more manufacturers to use the material as it costs 20-40 per cent less than new fibres, enabling them to compete in new markets and with new applications.

• Using more waste materials and by-products to make bioplastics would help UK agricultural, food and drink sectors lower their waste costs.

• Commercialising bioplastic production from waste would also mean British manufacturers could compete with the Brazilian sugar cane and subsidised US corn that dominate current supply chains. 

• Developing additive manufacturing’s capacity to refurbish broken parts would increase opportunities for repair and remanufacturing businesses, many of which are SMEs distributed around the country.  

The report highlights that, to realise these opportunities, the government’s industrial strategy should support new technologies and sectors in three ways:

1. Provide the support and information designers and manufacturers need to think through the whole life cycle of their materials to identify barriers to recovering value from them
2. Support collaboration between sectors and along supply chains to develop new applications for recovered materials
3. Fund research into more recyclable materials and new recovery technologies

Commenting on the report, author Jonny Hazell said:
“If it promotes a circular economy as part of its industrial strategy, the government will go a long way towards boosting employment and economic prospects, not just for scientists and engineers, but for small businesses around the country as well. Our work shows both the threat and opportunity of novel materials, with action needed now to avoid disrupting established resource management systems and increasing the waste of materials. But, equally, addressing this problem will improve productivity and have employment benefits, through developing high value materials and keeping them in use for longer”.
Katie Daniel, Manufacturing the Future Theme Lead, Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council said:
“EPSRC recognises the importance of research into novel materials to support the future competitiveness and creativity of the UK economy.  This report is a timely reminder of the need to incorporate circular economy thinking into materials development so as to make the best use of our resources.  EPSRC’s current Delivery Plan highlights moving towards a circular economy as one of our ambitions for making the UK a more productive nation.”
Jonny Hazell, senior policy adviser, Green Alliance (available for interview)
jhazell@green-alliance.org.uk 020 7630 4529
[1] Getting it right from the start: the circular economy for novel materials is published today by Green Alliance.

[2] Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership for the environment. Since 1979, it has been working with a growing network of influential leaders in business, NGOs and politics to stimulate new thinking and dialogue on environmental policy, and increase political action and support for environmental solutions in the UK.

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