Meet the plastics expert seeking to inject sustainability into its future

New technology to make recycling plastics easier and cheaper is the first step in a plan University of Auckland researchers have to reduce New Zealand’s rate of generating plastic waste which, per capita, is one of the highest in the world.

The idea is to stimulate a circular economy that is first enabled by this technology that simplifies and grows recycling opportunities, is then amplified by creation of a market for high-value recycled materials and ultimately, reduces the amount of plastic we are importing and putting into landfill.

Associate Professor Johan Verbeek, director of the Plastics Centre of Excellence at the University of Auckland, explains: “A problem with our current recycling system is it requires separation of different plastic materials to sort them into their unique and pure forms. While we have the capability to recycle, it’s not working for us and that’s due to a number of complex and interrelated barriers.”

Having worked with plastics since 1995, Johan has always had an interest in innovating with sustainability in mind. But the market hasn’t always been there to meet him. 
“When I started, biodegradables were roughly 50 times the price of regular plastics and people were never prepared to pay for it. So plastics have persisted and today there’s a perception that plastics is sort of the black sheep of engineering research. But even with rising awareness of environmental implications, the problem remains driven much more by economics and human behaviour than the materials themselves.” 

That’s why the new technology Johan wants to develop is just one component of an ambitious idea he is seeking to make happen, together with researchers including Professor Simon Bickerton, Assoc. Prof Deb Polson, Head of the Design school at the University of Auckland, Dr. Julia Fehrer from the Faculty of Business and Economics, and in partnership with industry organisations across the value chain including product manufacturers, designers, recyclers and local government. “The key to success comes down to our own actions. To encourage the behaviour we want to see we need to bring down the cost to recycle, we need businesses to choose recycled over new materials, and we need to design human intervention efforts that make it much easier for people to play their part.”

CEO of Plastics NZ Rachel Barker says: “Recycling is an important part of a circular economy for ensuring that plastics as valuable resources stays in use as long as possible. Plastics enable most of the technologies, medical advances and generally high standard of living we experience in Aotearoa. Plastics are also critical to achieving our Zero Carbon 2050 goals. Responsible use of these valuable materials means designing products and packaging so that the materials value is maintained and recovery systems are optimised.” 

Johan has been impressed by the level of support he has received from the industry and their excitement to come together to tackle a complex problem with a multi-disciplinary approach. He reckons that had he been having the same conversations, even as recent as five years ago, they may not have been as easy to progress. 

“It is exciting to see the appetite growing to create a fundamental change in the way we recycle and use plastics. Given New Zealanders are among the highest per capita plastic waste generators in the world, we have a lot of catching up to aspire to a recycling industry that reflects what is growing in Europe. We need to create the conditions for a market that works for us, and the time to get started is now.”

More about Associate Professor Johan Verbeek 

Johan’s biggest impact to date has been in developing protein-based thermoplastics, for which he is internationally respected. His work led to the establishment of Aduro Biopolymers LP, which produces Novatein, the only commercially available protein-based thermoplastic. He is also co-inventor of four different patents covering building materials from mining waste, bio-derived polyesters, polymers from proteins and process for removing colour from bioplastics. As director of the Plastics Centre for Excellence at the University of Auckland, Johan and his team regularly interact with companies in the field of product development using recycled materials. The centre welcomes interaction with industry or community groups interested in exploring ways to improve their sustainability. 

About Polymer Engineering at the University of Auckland

There are a number of Polymer Engineering postgraduate courses with access to leading facilities at the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Engineering. Sustainability is woven through the entire curriculum seeking to educate the next generation of polymer engineers and to upskill current professionals with the knowledge to design for circularity. To find out more visit the website.