“Research on plastic is of increasing interest to companies”
“In recycling, it is vital to generate new products with greater added value”
“The circular economy is here to stay”
Director of the Centre Català del Plàstic and professor of Materials Science and Engineering at the UPC, Maria Lluïsa Maspoch is a specialist in plastics and derivatives, with outstanding experience in company research.
Your research work is focused on plastic materials and compounds. Why?
There is a bit of chance in all this. I studied organic chemistry and came into contact with a lecturer who was responsible for the polymers area of the department, so I focused my thesis on the field of plastic materials. The more you research, the more you want to learn. And here we are.
From the perspective of applied research, what are the main lines of work in the Centre Català del Plàstic (CCP)?
We have a line of research projects for companies that cover many sectors, from packaging to construction, the automobile industry, optics and aeronautics, among others. We also provide services to companies who seek advice on specific problems, and the analysis and characterisation of products. The centre’s third function is associated with specialised training for companies, particularly in the characterisation, sustainability, extrusion and selection of materials, and the design of parts, among other areas.
A year ago the centre moved from Terrassa to Besòs. What has improved with the change in location?
We were happy in Terrassa, but the new location, in contact with other research groups, is an advantage. We also have better facilities and lighting, for example. The change has been good for us.
How many people are permanently associated with the centre?
Six people are attached directly to the CCP, to which we can add another four who are from the UPC. And we can also count doctoral and other students who are preparing their theses. The main profile is that of engineers specialised in materials.
What does CIT UPC provide in the process of knowledge transfer and application?
CIT UPC provides visibility and representativity. It enables us to participate in forums of interest and, from there, connect with companies for specific projects and collaborations. The contact with other centres and with researchers from other areas is also beneficial.
Some large companies use plastic as one of their manufacturing components. Are they interested in research projects that promote its use?
Yes. Research on plastic is of increasing interest to companies. In the last two years, we have detected greater willingness to use more sustainable plastics, such as biobased and recycled plastics. Companies contact the Centre Català del Plàstic seeking our expertise on these subjects, to introduce changes in their production processes and improve sustainability.
What is behind this interest?
To a large extent, a European directive from 2019 that restricts single-use plastics and proposes alternatives, either using other materials like paper, cardboard or wood or using more sustainable polymers.
What research projects are you working on currently?
Mainly on two. The first aims to recover opaque PET from bottles. Opaque PET uses a mineral load of titanium dioxide to protect dairy products and is quite common in countries like France. What we are doing is improving its recycling and finding high added value applications because if it is mixed with transparent PET it makes recycling difficult. This is a four-year project, in a consortium of French and Spanish universities and with funding from INTERREG. The other project, which is part of the TecnioSpring call, is focused on research on recycling rubber from tyres through its recovery.
And in developments for companies?
We are working on various projects that are subject to confidentiality. One of them, with a client in the fashion sector, is focused on improving processes, materials and waste associated with mannequins to improve the ecological balance. Funding is provided by the company. We have also worked on this system with a packaging brand that is interested in improving one of its containers.
Over 90% of plastic is produced from fossil fuels. How can this percentage be reduced?
It is odd, I often say that there are more tonnes of papers produced on this topic than tonnes of polymers produced from renewable sources. The plants that produce this type of biobased plastics are in the minority, and it will take time to turn this around. But that is what we are trying to do. In our centre, we have carried out various projects on polylactic acid (PLA), which is one of the alternatives to polymers generated from fossil fuel sources.
Is the problem of biobased plastics the cost of producing them?
There are two issues. One is the cost of production, which has a direct impact on scalability. The other is the cost of investments. But I am hopeful that in a few years this field will change a lot.
Recycling is one of the bases of the circular economy and sustainability. How can plastic research contribute to its development?
We contribute to the circular economy particularly on recycling issues. The recirculation of plastics is based on taking advantage of the potentiality of the material, which instead of becoming waste has a new application with a long useful life and with good features. If we generate something of little value, it will become waste again in the short-term, and we will not have gained anything. Here, there are issues that affect the original design of products, and we should consider the entire life of each component.
Do you think the concept of circular economy is a fashion or is it here to stay?
The circular economy is here to stay, although in time we will call it something else. We cannot waste this amount of materials of all kinds, from plastic to textile and food, to accumulate them without looking for solutions. This is something that we are working on at the UPC, for example, with the initiative Recircula Challenge, aimed at students.
How can we process plastics to generate eco-friendly compounds?
We have a project on this at the centre, called Eco Blends. The idea is to mix plastic waste with other polymers or to modify its structure through a reactive extrusion process to generate high added value recycling. In recycling, it is vital to generate new products with greater added value, not something that becomes new waste in the short term. This can be achieved by combining waste with other materials. In addition, plastics can be generated from renewable sources, such as maize, potatoes or sugar cane. We are researching this area.
What are the uses of this type of plastics derived from biodegradable materials?
There are many, some surprising. For example, polylactic acid that is obtained from maize using processes of biofermentation is used as filament for 3D printers. We have opened the door to this material with new manufacturing technology.
You also offer training programmes for companies. What do they request?
They ask for courses focused on improving processes, using new materials and even ordering the nomenclature and organisation of new technologies. These are programmes tailored to each company.
It is still unusual to find women directing technology centres and in engineering in general. Do you have any ideas on how to resolve this anomaly?
I think that one of the problems is the lack of women models, of references in this field. Women are quite well-represented in teaching and research, but not in engineering, in companies. We have very good students who achieve quality jobs on completion of their studies. But to encourage careers, I think the media could be a good resource through which to foster the interest of young women by showing specific examples.
The article was jointly funded by the European Regional Development Funds (ERDF) of the European Union, as part of the Operational Framework of the ERDF in Catalonia 2014-2020.