Research assistant Rachel Kennedy and Dr Walter Stanley of IComp
IRELAND is currently the biggest producer of plastic waste in the European Union with an average of 61 kg produced each year per person.
And while plastics are an important material in the economy, they can also have serious negative impacts on the environment and public health; chemicals in plastics can migrate into water supplies, oceans and our bodies if recycling is not prioritised.
Single-use plastic bottles, which make up the bulk of plastic waste, pollute landscape and degrade over time, leaching into the environment creating problems for nature, animals and humans.
That’s according to Dr. Walter Stanley of the Irish Composites Centre (IComp) at the University of Limerick’s Bernal Institute.
“China is now also refusing to take in recycling material because they have had enough,” Dr Stanley explains.
In January last year, an environmental crackdown in Beijing, China saw the world’s biggest recycling market close.
“So it is up to Ireland and the EU to look at this ourselves,” he added.
“The amount of plastics that Ireland uses; we use the most in the EU. We have a lot to do.”
An advanced research initiative now being trialled at IComp has the potential to have a real impact on solving one of the world’s leading environmental problems - the responsible disposal of used plastics.
The centre is currently developing technology that takes plastic material polyethylene terephthalate (PET), used commonly in disposal plastic bottles, and recycles this into a high tensile fibre that can be then woven into a fabric.
This fabric has the potential to be used in the production of parts for the automobile and agricultural vehicle industry, Dr Stanley explains.
“We looked at this as a composite material - all of the wind turbine blades around the world are made of composites but they are not recyclable as they are made from glass, fiber and maybe a vinyl ester resin, or something like that. That goes into landfill, it can’t be recycled.
“But this material, it’s from recycled material, it goes into service for its lifetime and then can be fully recycled again and then repurposed.
“It's really cradle-to-grave-to-cradle because what we are doing is taking end of life bottles, recycling those into fully recyclable materials and then at the end of that life, it can be completely recycled again.”
“It’s continuous recycling which is especially important with new EU regulations regarding end of life automotive parts.”
“At the end of the day, hopefully this could become an influencer in the electric vehicle market.”
IComp recently was awarded funding from Enterprise Ireland and the Environmental Protection Agency to further this research, according to IComp project manager Dr Norah Patten.
A graduate of the UL aeronautical engineering programme, Dr Patten is one of 12 people invited to take part in a unique citizen-astronaut training programme.
“We’re hosted here in UL with partnerships in University College Dublin (UCD), Athlone Institute of Technology (AIT) and NUI Galway,” Dr Patten explained.
The centre also has 21 industrial members.
Led by director Dr. Terry McGrail, IComp’s research and development activities include materials innovation and composite manufacturing and processing, the design of composite components and structures, joining technologies and damage detection and repair.
This is all supported by a comprehensive programme of modelling, experimental testing and in-depth characterisation.
The centre is one of four strands of ‘research clusters’ operating out of the Bernal Institute, the largest research institute at UL.
“IComp is an Enterprise Ireland funded centre to really help industry to solve problems, to drive them forward and really to be that connection to the university system,” Dr Patten added.
The centre currently has 12 projects “on the go”, she explained.
“It’s been powerful to see the response we’ve gotten from local community groups, who have contacted us about initiatives they have set up, to collect plastic bottles.
“There has been really positive feedback from people which shows that people don’t want all this waste. They want to see some value in it being recycled.”
According to Dr Stanley, Irish recyclers who helped the researchers with their initial studies are also “really interested” in the technology.
“We’ve had some wonderful help as we went along, from some of the Irish recyclers,” he said.
“We’ve done this on a prototype scale so now what we have to do is scale it up, make more material and to finalise what we need is a technical data sheet - what that means is a document that lists the properties of the material fully. For example, what kind of strength it has, what kind of resistance it has.
“I want to promote this technology so that the environment can be protected as we move into the future. What I’d like to see is the technology that we are developing and advancing here rolled out, not from a commercial gain point of view but from an environmental point of view.
“That the results that we get would make it more attractive for other countries, not only other countries but Ireland itself, to make it worthwhile to recycle properly these PET bottles, bottles of water, bottles of coke and all that. That there is an incentive there,” he concluded.
This article was included as part of a 36 page supplement called Limerick On The Up, highlighting Limerick’s resurgence. It is available as an e-paper here.