A life without plastic is almost unthinkable, because plastic is a very valuable product any way you look at it. For example, it is a lightweight construction material that can help reduce CO2 emissions during transport and prevents food losses when used as a packaging material. But there is a drawback for which we urgently need to find a solution. 

After all, production is based on fossil resources and the plastic all too often ends up in the environment after use. And precisely because it's virtually indestructible, it poses a threat to the ecosystem.

A change in behaviour - such as using less plastic - is therefore a first step. But that's not enough. By 2030, all plastics in Europe must be able to be reused and recycled in a cost-efficient way. In addition, half of all plastic waste must also be effectively recycled.

Flanders has also set itself a number of targets with regard to packaging. Ambitious goals have been formulated by the food industry. Within the chemical industry, this is part of the so-called Moonshots. This is a future-oriented industrial innovation programme introduced by the Flemish government with the goal of achieving a CO2-neutral industry by 2050.

VITO advises the government on policy measures and is also committed to helping to find technological solutions to achieve these objectives. It does this on two levels: looking for alternatives to fossil resources in the manufacture of plastics and using them for sorting, recycling and (total) decomposition.

Europe is responsible for 25.8 million tonnes of plastic waste each year. 59% of this comes from packaging materials.  Only 6% of the demand for plastic is met by recycled plastic. This figure is far too low. Tonnes of plastic waste are currently being incinerated. The challenge is therefore to really recycle and reuse plastic waste on a large scale. There are a number of obstacles currently standing in the way of that. Pure plastic can simply be melted and reused as a plastic raw material, but pure plastic is virtually non-existent. Various additives are mixed with it to make it easier to process and give it the desired properties. The Flemish SBO project ‘Fully Closed Cycle for re- and upcycling of used polymers’ is keen to develop techniques to remove these additives - such as dyes, plasticisers or flame retardants - from relatively pure PVC, polyethylene and polypropylene in order to obtain a pure and therefore perfectly reusable raw material. An additional challenge with these old plastics is sometimes the presence of additives that are now more strictly regulated by the legislator and therefore need to be partially removed and/or replaced. VITO is joining forces here with KU Leuven, VUB, UGent and Centexbel.

Sometimes, however, the mix is so diverse that no separation occurs. Then the only solution is to completely degrade the plastic chemically into a raw material for the chemical industry. For example, polymers can be broken down by pyrolysis (extremely high heating) into monomers, a petroleum-like substance that can be reintegrated into the value chain. That’s why Catalisti started the WATCH project in 2019. This is an SBO project that will continue until 2023 and will focus entirely on the chemical recycling of plastic waste. The aim is to break down plastic that is difficult to recycle into monomers and convert it into valuable chemicals and energy carriers. The WATCH project – in which UGent and KULeuven collaborate with VITO – will focus on four types of plastic waste: mixed polyolefin waste, multi-layer packaging, polystyrene and polyurethane.

A step in between ‘purification’ and complete decomposition is depolymerisation. This should be possible in the future. This process allows you to retain the building blocks of the polymer, but cut the shape into reusable elements.

The Flemish Moonshots…


Although Flanders is not literally aiming to fly to the moon by 2050, the region does want to help Flemish industry transition to a low-carbon circular economy using four thematic research trajectories. To this end, Flanders is partnering with universities, research centres and industries. New technologies allowing climate-friendly processes and products to be created must be on point by 2040 so that Flanders can make the leap to low-carbon circular manufacturing in the following decade. The four thematic research trajectories that should give rise to these technologies are Bio-based Chemistry, Circularity of Carbon in Materials, Electrification & Radical Process Transformation and Energy Innovation.