STEPS – Sustainable Plastics and Transition Pathways
About the Program
STEPS is a research program with a vision of a future society in which plastics are sustainably developed, produced, used and recycled in a circular economy. STEPS aims to play a key role in instigating and accelerating this sustainability transition by strengthening the knowledge and research base for technology-, product development and innovation. The program will also develop and assess key niche products with industrial partners and analyze the sustainability, institutional and policy implications of potential transition pathways.
The STEPS program is formulated in close dialogue with industrial partners to reflect the market needs for sustainable plastics – both on a short-term and long-term basis. It is based on the concept of designing eco-friendly plastics having desired material properties and life cycle by matching appropriate carbon-neutral building blocks and their derivatives.
Major focus is on polyesters, which represent a plastics group with varying properties for wide range of applications and a sizable global market. In STEPS, polyesters will be made from building blocks produced from renewable feedstocks, which also will be evaluated for production of copolymers and composites with other natural polymers like protein, cellulose and starch.
The plastic products will be viewed from a life cycle perspective, taking into account the sustainability of the renewable feedstocks, production, processing, and end-of-life solutions for the plastics. Understanding how plastics are introduced and used as products as well as discarded as waste is an important part of assessing the whole life cycle.
Thus, the program will also consider consumer behavior as well as strategies of industries and businesses relating to innovative plastics.
STEPS is divided into three Work Packages (WPs):
WP 1 – Production of building blocks from renewable feedstocks
WP1 will develop environmentally benign and competitive technologies based on green chemistry and biotechnology for production of aliphatic and aromatic building blocks from renewable feedstocks with a goal of replacing fossil feedstock and for meeting the needs for different plastic groups.
The building blocks will comprise representatives among diols (e.g. 1,6-hexanediol), dicarboxylic acids (e.g. adipic acid, 2,5-furan dicarboxylic acid, terephthalic acid), hydroxyaldehydes (5-hydroxymethyl furfural) and lactones (e.g. ε-caprolactone).
The feedstocks to be used in WP1 will be representative of that generated locally from the residual/waste biomass side streams from agriculture and forestry. To access the sugars in the feedstock, suitable biomass fractionation and pretreatment technologies will be optimized and evaluated.
The use of CO2 as an alternative feedstock constitutes a long-term strategy of STEPS for the sustainable plastic systems, and will be explored in combination with a clean source of reducing power and production system. The processes for the production of building block products from the respective raw materials will be assessed with respect to various parameters to meet the targets for environmental- and economic sustainability.
WP 2 – Preparation, characterization and application of bio-based plastics
WP2 will develop, characterize and evaluate formulations to produce “drop-in” and new polymers using different combinations of bio-based (or biodegradable) building blocks and modified natural polymers with desired properties for industrial applications, as well as features of recyclability, biodegradability, and removal of toxic additives.
The target bio-plastic materials will be identified based on industrial needs. New homo- and copolyesters (PET- or PLA-like) will be tailor-prepared using bio-based building blocks (from WP1) and processed with different formulations (e.g. using green additives, green solvents, fillers, or other biopolymers or natural polymers), in order to improve specific materials properties, to meet the demands of various specific applications and to create novel end-uses.
The new bio-plastic materials will be investigated regarding their mechanical properties, processability and biodegradability/recyclability. Up-scaling investigations will be carried out by industrial participants. The products (e.g. films, fibers, sheets) will be evaluated by industrial partners as end-users.
WP 3 – Governing the transition towards a sustainable plastic system
WP3 will assess the environmental and economic viability of products and processes for the objective of supporting early deployment, as well as analyze potential transition pathways to develop research-based advice on policy and industrial strategies for sustainability in the longer term.
This WP also addresses the broader governance implications for a circular plastics economy, including social dimensions and the role of citizens and consumers.
The current socio-technical system will be mapped and sustainability pathways explored in co-design processes with stakeholders and assessed. This includes policy and governance implications as well as changes in social norms and consumer behavior (both among end-use consumers and large users such as IKEA and Region Skåne). Transition pathways are studied at a general level but also for particular cases, products or business solutions that emerge from WP1 and WP2.
The transboundary mission
STEPS engages an interdisciplinary group of researchers from various departments at Lund University, along with Swedish Agricultural University and Swerea IVF to cover the various aspects for transition to a sustainable plastics economy, including chemical sciences and engineering, biotechnology, polymer technology and processing, solid mechanics, product development, environmental systems, innovation systems, sociology and political science.
Most importantly, the stakeholders associated to the program represent the entire value chain and have the ability to drive the transition towards sustainable plastics systems.
The stakeholders include the companies with different biomass streams – Lyckeby, Nordic Sugar and Södra; producers of building block chemicals and plastics – Bona, IKEM, Perstorp, SEKAB, Flextrus and GPS; additives for plastics – Clariant and Deflamo; users of plastic products – Electrolux, IKEA, Orkla Foods, Region Skåne; and waste handling and recycle companies – Sysav, Hans Andersson Plastics and Miljösäck.