Circularity of Carbon in Materials

Plastics are everywhere. We use this carbon-based, lightweight material to package our food, insulate our houses, build wind turbines, cut transport costs, and so much more. Thanks to all the advantages and applications of plastics, a modern society without them is simply impossible to imagine. Yet, after they have been used, many carbon-based plastics end up being burned. During incineration, plastic waste releases vast amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.

The Moonshot initiative seeks to curb this type of CO2 emissions. Therefore, the second Moonshot research trajectory on the circularity of carbon in materials (MOT2) supports innovative research into the recycling and reusing of plastic waste.

Closing the Circle

By developing new mechanical and chemical recycling technologies, plastic and other carbon-containing waste can be repurposed to make building blocks for new plastics and products. Through recycling, the percentage of plastics that is being reused can be increased. At the same time, the percentage of plastics that is being burned can be decreased to a minimum.

This closes the circle: it keeps carbon in materials in circulation throughout the value chain for as long as possible. CO2 is not released into the atmosphere but remains trapped in plastics. This way, circularity is a crucial pathway to make the Flemish industry carbon circular and low in CO2 by 2050.

Challenges

Some plastics are complex and contain several types of material. Recycling them is a challenge. In future, plastics need to be carefully designed to guarantee easy recycling, preserve functionality and ensure lasting quality.

Even if the circle is almost closed, a small fraction of virgin raw materials will always be required to compensate for imperfections in recycling and reuse. Renewable raw materials, such as monomers that are biobased or made from the direct reuse of captured CO2 (so-called CCU or Carbon Capture and Utilization), will need to be used as necessary supplement. The sustainability impact of these scenarios will have to be studied and monitored thoroughly to create a truly circular plastics economy.

Goals and KPIs

The second Moonshot research trajectory on the circularity of carbon in materials aims to:
1. Develop technology to recycle 70% of post-consumer volume (contaminated) polyolefins (TRL 6) by 2030 (by combining mechanical and chemical recycling, but with the main contribution expected from new technology for chemical recycling, with the ambition to transform 75% of all polyolefin-type plastics at the end of their cycle of use into building blocks for new products by 2040.
2. Develop technology to recycle 60% of post-consumer volume of heteropolymers (TRL 6) by 2030 (by combining mechanical and chemical recycling, but with the main contribution expected from new technology for chemical recycling). With the ambition to be able to transform 80% of all heteropolymer-type plastics (polyamides, polyurethanes, PET) at the end of their cycle of use into building blocks for new products, by 2040.
3. Develop 2 chemical platforms for more easily recyclable plastics (‘chemical design for recyclability’) up to TRL 6 by 2030. These platforms are focused on high-quality plastics for technical applications (heteropolymers).

These goals have to be met within the following preconditions:
4. By 2040, the technology must enable to obtain 75% of all plastics that are put into circulation in Flanders via (mechanical & chemical) recycling (or biomass or CCU).
5. Resulting in a drastic reduction in CO2 emissions (e.g. through the combustion of end-of-life plastics) of around 1 million ton of CO2/year.

Projects in MOT2 Circularity of Carbon in Materials