Circular Plastics Economy: Accelerated Disintegration of Bioplastics.


Fraunhofer LBF is working on optimized plastic formulations to enable a circular plastics economy.
(© Oleshko_Artem_AdobeStock)

Although plastics contribute to energy saving and resource conservation, their role in a sustainable economy is coming under increasingly critical observation. Within the scope of the Fraunhofer Circular Plastics Economy cluster of excellence, Fraunhofer LBF is working with other Fraunhofer partner institutes to make plastics future-proof. In addition to extending the life span and improving suitability for recycling, in materials development this involves developing a bioplastic which is based on organic materials and can biologically disintegrate in the environment relatively quickly.

Fraunhofer LBF is core institute in the cluster of excellence

To ensure our basis for progress and prosperity in the long term and to protect the environment and preserve resources, we need to think in circular economic cycles. The Fraunhofer Circular Plastics Economy cluster of excellence has set itself the goal of developing a strategy with subsequent implementation which enables a platform for a circular plastics economy. In collaboration with other Fraunhofer Institutes, Fraunhofer LBF is playing a key role as the central institute and the competencies of the individual institutes are being pooled to harness synergies. Company representatives are involved in order to generate application-based solutions.

Circular economy as innovation driver

The establishment of a circular plastics economy requires innovations at several levels. In materials development, biodegradable polymers based on organic materials are being synthesized and additive systems for optimized material properties are being developed. Criteria and prototypes for a circular product design are being drafted at another level. This is supported by the development of technologies to shape the recycling of plastics in a practical manner. The strategy is supported by an evaluation methodology which supports industry and politics in planning, supporting and implementing circular value creation.

Figure 1: Customized additive systems enable the controlled decomposition of biopolymers.
(© Fraunhofer LBF)

Figure 2: Influence of selected additives on the melting viscosity of aged PLA samples.
(© Fraunhofer LBF)

Targeted definition of life spans of plastics

Plastics with a highly diverse range of applications pose particularly significant demands for material development. On the one hand, plastics based on organic materials require a long life span for long-term applications, while on the other hand, in certain applications, bioplastics should be suitable for composting and biodegradable as quickly as possible in order to avoid microplastics.

Furthermore, suitability for recycling is a highly significant factor in the circularity. Only if the plastic product can be reprocessed after its duration of use, during which it is subjected to high thermo-mechanical loads, can the circular economy become a reality. Here, Fraunhofer LBF is leveraging its strengths in the area of plastics with experience in the areas of polymer synthesis, material characterization and additive development in practice-based processing, and can make a significant contribution to the circular plastics economy.

Experiments at Fraunhofer LBF show that it was possible to lengthen or shorten the life span of PLA, a plastic based on lactic acids, by adding certain additives during immersion in water. Selected additive systems were developed and successfully tested with the stipulation that the life span could be defined in a targeted manner so that a patent application could be made.

The additives can be added to standard plastic formulations without negatively influencing the processing properties. Potential areas of application are in the food packaging industry, agriculture and in areas of application in which plastics could remain in the environment, so that the biological decomposition of the polymer in the environment or in the compost represents a useful addition to the product properties.

“Our considerable expertise in polymer synthesis, material characterization and additive development contributes significantly to the continued development of the circular plastics economy.” Dr. Elke Metzsch-Zilligen