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Shaping a Sustainable Future: R&D and Innovation in Plastics

The UK plastics industry is undergoing significant transformation, driven by the increasing demand for sustainable and eco-friendly solutions. This demand has led to a surge in plastics R&D activities across the field.

In this blog post, Grantica’s R&D experts will share key areas of UK plastics R&D and innovation, discuss the importance of R&D and collaborations between government, research institutions and businesses, and touch upon the potential benefits the UK government’s R&D tax relief scheme could offer for companies involved in these innovative projects.

Sustainable and eco-friendly plastics R&D

One of the main trends in the UK plastics industry, as in almost every industry today, is the development of sustainable and eco-friendly materials to reduce the ecological damage caused by the products we use every day. As public and regulatory pressure on companies to reduce plastic pollution and sales of single-use plastic, plastics manufacturing companies have been motivated to innovate and develop alternative solutions.

Notable subjects of R&D projects in the plastics industry currently include:

  • Development and production of biodegradable plastics: These are designed to break down in the environment over time, reducing the long-lasting impact of plastic waste. R&D efforts in this area often involve the development of new polymers or additives that enable the material to degrade under specific conditions, such as exposure to sunlight, water, or microorganisms.
  • Compostable plastics: Like biodegradable plastics, these materials decompose into natural elements in a composting environment, leaving no toxic residue. R&D in this field typically focuses on creating plastics that can be composted under industrial or home composting conditions, ensuring a more environmentally friendly end-of-life solution.
  • Bio-based plastics: These are derived from renewable resources such as plant-based materials, reducing the dependency on fossil fuels. R&D in this area can involve the development of new bio-based polymers, improving the properties of existing bio-based plastics, or enhancing the production processes to make them more efficient and sustainable.

Plastics R&D relating to recycling and waste reduction

Another key area of innovation in the UK plastics industry is the development of recycling and waste reduction technologies. These efforts aim to minimize the environmental impact of plastics by:

  • Improving recycling methods: R&D projects in this area may focus on enhancing the sorting, separation, and processing of plastic waste to increase recycling rates and the quality of recycled materials. This can involve the development of new technologies, such as chemical recycling, which can break down plastics into their constituent monomers for reuse in the production of new plastics.
  • Waste reduction technologies: These innovations aim to minimize the amount of plastic used in products or packaging, without compromising their functionality or performance. R&D in this area can involve creating new materials or designs that use less plastic or developing alternative solutions that reduce the need for plastic packaging altogether.

Advanced materials with enhanced properties

The UK plastics industry is also focusing on the development of advanced materials with improved properties, such as:

  • Strength and durability: R&D in this area often involves creating new materials or modifying existing materials to enhance their performance in applications that require high strength or resistance to wear and tear. This can involve the use of nanotechnology, novel polymer blends, or innovative additives to achieve the desired properties.
  • Lightweighting: Reducing the weight of plastic materials is crucial for industries such as automotive and aerospace, where lightweight components can lead to increased fuel efficiency and reduced emissions. R&D efforts in this area may involve the development of new materials or processing techniques that enable the production of lightweight, yet strong and durable plastic components.

Industry partnerships and collaborations around plastics R&D

Collaborations between research institutions, businesses, and NGOs in the UK are vital in contributing to developing innovative plastics solutions, and an R&D project may involve several contributing partners.

For example, plastics company Polymateria and Imperial College London partnered in 2020 to create a new biodegradable plastic. In December 2022, recycling technology firm Plastic Energy opened new research and development labs and dedicated office space at Loughborough University to enable the partners to collaborate more closely on joint R&D. In February 2023, Waste Plastic Upcycling (WPU) A/S entered negotiations with Vitol for R&D involving the construction of an upcycling facility based on WPU proprietary technology but financed by Vitol.

Why invest in research and development?

As the UK plastics industry continues to innovate and adapt to meet the growing demand for advanced, sustainable and eco-friendly solutions, companies need to recognise the value of plastics R&D and collaboration in driving progress.

By focusing on key areas such as sustainable materials, recycling and waste reduction technologies, and the development of materials with enhanced properties, the industry can help pave the way towards a more sustainable future. As consumer choices and B2B investments are driven increasingly by the sustainability of materials and processes, companies that opt to save money in the short term by upholding the status quo, and don’t innovate, risk being left behind.

Embarking on an R&D project represents a significant investment and can seem like an unacceptable risk to an SME with tight margins. It is important for businesses in the plastics industry to be aware of potential R&D tax relief opportunities for projects which meet HMRC’s criteria for eligible R&D projects, which define R&D as “systematic, investigative, or experimental activities carried out in the field of science or technology.”

This includes activities to develop new products, services, or processes and improve existing ones. A qualifying project must:

  • Aim to achieve an advance in science or technology
  • Involve scientific or technological uncertainties that cannot be easily resolved by a competent professional in the field
  • Involve a process of systematic experimentation or investigation

HMRC is the UK’s biggest innovation investor by far, and R&D tax credits are designed to provide valuable financial support to fuel research, development, and growth. They can be applied even when an R&D project did not achieve the desired outcome. HMRC has in some cases awarded claims of more than £100,000 in tax relief for projects that seek to reduce plastic waste.

This is a clear signal of HMRC’s understanding of the net benefit to the UK economy when companies of all sizes embrace innovation. Grantica believes that, with the willingness to invest in R&D and the support to reclaim some of their R&D expenses, companies at all levels of the UK plastics industry can position themselves at the forefront of global advancements in materials sustainability.

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