2nd PRESS RELEASE – Insects, earthworms, and enzymes work in combination to tackle plastic pollution
Circular models to tackle plastic pollution
Globally, 360 million tons of plastic are produced annually – 40% is consumed by the food packaging sector and 3.5% by agriculture; just over 30% of the plastic waste generated in the EU is recycled, the rest is incinerated, landfilled, or released into the environment. More than half of the used food packaging collected in municipal waste cannot be recycled with available techniques due to its heterogeneity and the presence of leftover products. Hence the importance for the industry to set up different systems to close the plastic material loop.
To address these challenges at the end-of-life of plastics, the RECOVER project is working to provide novel biotechnological solutions using the combined action of enzymes and organisms (microorganisms, earthworms and insects) for the remediation of plastic pollution in agricultural fields and the conversion of non-recyclable plastics.
The insects and earthworms, with the micro-organisms in their digestive systems and the enzymes they produce, act collaboratively and transform a large part of these plastics into components from which chitin, an ingredient for making biodegradable plastics, is extracted. Precisely, the most innovative aspect of this project is the combined action of all the elements.
The aim is to convert plastic waste into biofertilizers and bioplastics for agricultural and food packaging applications.
Another strategy within the same process is to generate biofertilizers from the excrements of insects and earthworms and the bedding used for their development at the expense of plastics. The same organisms will also be used to eliminate the pollutants that are present in agricultural fertilizer and that end up in the soil.
Definition of types of plastics and selection of organisms and enzymes
During the first 18 months of the project, the activity has focused on defining the types of food waste plastics and the logistical approach, selecting the organisms and enzymes for their degradation and initiating scale-up for their combined production. In addition to selecting the organisms and enzymes, the basic conditions necessary to degrade the chosen plastics are being established.
From now on, the most complex phase will be tackled: testing the selected organisms in conditions similar to reality, in soil contaminated with plastic or in a composting process where what happens to the plastics will be monitored. All of this will also involve economic, social and logistical studies on how non-recyclable plastics will be transported to the treatment units and how these procedures will be implemented in controlled composting reactors.
The ultimate goal of the project is to generate a set of biotechnological tools and test them on real mixed plastic waste streams in contaminated environments. This will establish simple environmental conditions that can be replicated in farms or municipalities as a profitable activity, paving the way for future exploitation and supporting the EU’s effort to shift to circular models and tackle plastic pollution.
The RECOVER project will make a valuable contribution by offering solutions to the main problems posed by agri-food plastic waste, as well as establishing a new cross-cutting interconnection in the bioeconomy involving waste management and biotechnology.
The RECOVER project will have a very positive environmental impact; it is expected to offer huge advantages by decreasing the generation and dispersion of plastics in changes and will reduce the large amount of plastic that is currently buried in landfills or incinerated with the implications this has for the release of GHGs.
The RECOVER project is a research and innovative action that started on 1 June 2020 and will run for four years. It brings together 17 multidisciplinary partners to develop a set of biotechnology-based processes involving the combined action of novel enzymes, microbial communities, insects, and earthworms for the sustainable recycling of food packaging and agricultural plastic waste streams, i.e. agri-food waste plastic waste (AWP), and the clean-up of environments contaminated by them.
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