Funding opportunity

Funding opportunity: Research for a plastics circular economy: outline proposals

Apply for funding for interdisciplinary research to support a more sustainable overall plastics system and help the UK move towards a circular plastics economy.

You must:

  • be based at a UK organisation eligible for funding
  • meet individual eligibility criteria
  • involve at least one project partner.

Projects can be up to £1.75 million at 100% full economic cost. We will fund 80% of the full economic cost.

Project duration can be up to 36 months.

Who can apply

Standard UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) eligibility rules apply. Research grants are open to:

  • UK higher education institutions
  • research council institutes
  • UKRI-approved independent research organisations
  • eligible public sector research establishments
  • NHS bodies with research capacity.

Check if your institution is eligible for funding.

Individual eligibility

You can apply if you are a resident in the UK and meet at least one of the conditions below:

  • are employed at the submitting research organisation at a level equivalent to lecturer or above
  • hold a fixed-term contract that extends beyond the duration of the proposed project, and the host research organisation is prepared to give you all the support normal for a permanent employee
  • hold an EPSRC, BBSRC, UKRI, Royal Society, Royal Academy of Engineering or similar fellowship
  • hold fellowships under other schemes (please contact EPSRC to check eligibility, which is considered on a case-by-case basis).

Holders of postdoctoral level fellowships are not eligible to apply for an EPSRC or BBSRC grant.

You can be the principal investigator on one proposal and a co-investigator on one additional proposal only. Alternatively, you can be a co-investigator only, on no more than two proposals.

Repeatedly unsuccessful applicants policy

Submissions to the outline stage of this funding opportunity will not count towards the EPSRC repeatedly unsuccessful applicants policy.

Submissions to the full proposal stage of this funding opportunity will count towards the EPSRC repeatedly unsuccessful applicants policy.

If you are currently restricted under the repeatedly unsuccessful applicants policy, you may submit unlimited outlines. However, you will only be able to submit one full proposal as principal investigator or co-investigator during the 12-month restricted period.

What we're looking for

This opportunity aims to fund interdisciplinary research to support a more sustainable overall plastics system and a move towards a circular plastics economy through developments in:

  • biological sciences
  • biotechnology
  • engineering
  • information and communications technology (ICT)
  • mathematical sciences
  • physical sciences.

Plastics are an essential material within advanced societies. However, their extraction and production can have damaging impacts. Their low cost has led to a culture of disposal following limited use and their durability can be problematic at the end of their use-life.

Aligning to UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) strategic theme of ‘building a greener future’ and the UK’s Net Zero Research and Innovation Framework, EPSRC and BBSRC are looking to support research into delivering a circular economy for plastics, and harness the significant positive economic and environmental impacts it will enable.

This opportunity will directly deliver against EPSRC’s Engineering Net Zero priority ambitions to collaborate across UKRI to deliver whole systems approaches and solutions to:

  • reduce the quantity of resource used
  • eliminate pollution
  • help deliver a sustainable zero carbon future.

EPSRC and BBSRC welcome proposals from across the plastics research community. The whole of the product life cycle is in scope, from extraction and novel and conventional production, to maximising the longevity and value achieved while in use, and finally to recycling and recovery at the end of life.

This is the outline stage of the opportunity. If your proposal is successful at the outline stage you will be invited to submit a full proposal.

Interdisciplinary approach

We want to see interdisciplinary project proposals that commence by addressing a novel challenge relevant to delivering a more sustainable and, where appropriate, circular plastics system in one or more of the following areas:

  • bioscience
  • biotechnology
  • engineering
  • ICT
  • mathematical sciences
  • physical sciences.

Plastics research can fall within the remit of any of the research councils and is often interdisciplinary by necessity. For this opportunity, proposals must fit primarily within EPSRC’s or BBSRC’s remit, or both. Interdisciplinary projects that in part fall within the remit of other councils are welcome and encouraged. Participation by researchers from other disciplines will be eligible for funding.

Where relevant, EPSRC and BBSRC will work with other councils to ensure a representative range of subject expertise is involved in the peer review process. However, please note that proposals deemed to have a majority remit within another UKRI council will be rejected. EPSRC and BBSRC reserve the right to make such remit decisions without reference to peer review.

What we expect to see in proposals

Proposals should address research challenges that support a more sustainable overall plastics system and where appropriate, a circular plastics economy. Applications that look towards creating tighter loops and maximising value retention are particularly encouraged.

Your proposal should:

  • be adventurous and ambitious with the potential for high impact
  • address real-world challenges
  • be developed in partnership with relevant stakeholders such as industry or government. Proposals which connect and contribute to local innovation priorities are particularly welcomed.

Proposals must present a credible potential translation pathway for the research outputs, demonstrating how the project will likely help deliver a sustainable plastics future through the practical application of the research.

You should consider and engage with wider stakeholders, including policy makers and where appropriate, the public.

The UK Circular Plastics Network (CPN) is willing to suggest relevant potential industrial partners wherever possible. To that end, you should approach CPN to explore possible collaborative opportunities as early as possible.

Before applying, you should:

  • read the background for this opportunity in the ‘additional info’ section
  • consider the broader context, sectors and plastics system or systems your proposed research outcomes sit within.

Research challenges

This opportunity is open to any project addressing a research challenge related to accelerating the transition to a circular plastics economy. EPSRC and BBSRC particularly welcome proposals addressing the following priority areas where significant challenges remain:

  • tighter loops of circularity by designing for reuse, disassembly, remanufacture (from molecular to whole product levels), and repair including in-situ (self-healing)
  • novel approaches to recycling of the approximately 50 to 55% of plastics that currently are not recovered at the end of life
  • recovery and reuse of plastics currently lost to the environment, in particular micro- and nanoparticles and fibres, including the use of bioremediation approaches
  • strategies for managing the impact of additives in plastics on recycling of plastic products. Additives can complicate or inhibit the bulk recycling of a single plastic type, but additives, including novel or innovative bio-additives, could also be used to improve recycling rates without compromising the properties of the materials
  • effective tracking, transport, separation or sorting and recycling technologies for harder to tackle polymers
  • more efficient recycling technologies that maintain material properties over a greater number of lifecycles
  • novel approaches to the analysis of available plastics data, to enable tighter material and product circularity loops, including methods for measuring and estimating the embodied or lifecycle carbon emissions of plastic materials and products
  • plastics constructed from bio-based and alternative feedstocks to petrochemicals, that contribute to a circular system.

Any proposed new plastics, including novel bioplastics, must demonstrably conform to current and planned (or anticipated) regulatory controls, as well as aligning to the ambitions of the existing and predicted overall plastics system.

The substitution of plastics by other materials is outside the remit of this opportunity.

Proposals addressing plastic packaging are not excluded from this opportunity, but you must demonstrate how any project would be complementary to other investments such as the smart sustainable plastic packaging challenge.

Whole system approach

You should consider the whole system (technological, economic, social, cultural and environmental) within which the proposed research outputs would sit.

You should consider:

  • how the different parts of a system, at different scales (material, product and sector) influence each other as a whole
  • the relationships and feedback loops between them
  • the wider social, legal, regulatory, economic and environmental context.

Responsible innovation and environmental sustainability

All projects funded via this opportunity must:

  • follow the principles and guidance contained within UKRI’s environmental sustainability strategy, regarding the sustainability of the research methodologies used
  • consider the responsible innovation and environmental sustainability aspects of the proposed research approaches, and the associated project outputs and outcomes.

A shift to a more circular plastics economy provides an opportunity for the UK to achieve more sustainable and clean economic growth and prosperity. This should involve the consideration of the risks, costs and trade-offs associated with different materials, technologies and approaches and an appropriate degree of application of tools such as life cycle analysis.

Project partners

You should include at least one appropriate project partner (industrial, government or third sector), to demonstrate that:

  • the project will address a tangible need
  • a credible potential translation pathway for the research output is in place.

Both sector specific and multi sector proposals are welcomed.

Project partner engagement must demonstrably extend beyond an advisory role, such as by providing:

  • a cash contribution to the project, such as a direct investment to support a project research activity
  • ‘in-kind support’, for example:
    • access to equipment or other resources
    • employee time allocated to involvement in research activities.

It should be clear that each project partner has a clear interest in the project achieving outcomes and impacts relevant to its business or mission.

You will need to have secured a commitment to collaborate on the proposed project from at least one project partner for the outline stage of your application.

Funding and duration

We have up to £7 million to fund a number of projects.

Your project can be up to £1.75 million at 100% full economic cost. We will fund 80% of the full economic cost.

Projects can be up to 36 months in duration.

Equipment over £10,000 in value (including VAT) is not available through this opportunity. Smaller items of equipment (individually under £10,000) should be included under the ‘directly incurred – other costs’ heading in your Je-S application.

EPSRC approach to equipment funding.

Responsible innovation

You are expected to work within the UKRI frameworks for responsible innovation.

International collaboration

If you are planning to include international collaborators in your proposal, visit Trusted Research for guidance on getting the most out of international collaboration whilst protecting intellectual property, sensitive research and personal information.

How to apply

This funding opportunity has a two-stage application process:

  1. Outline proposal.
  2. Invited submission of a full proposal, if successful at the outline stage.

Before you submit an outline proposal, we strongly encourage you to refer to the ‘additional info’ section. This details what you will need to provide if you are invited to the full proposal stage and how it will be assessed.

Stage one: outline proposal

You should ensure you are aware of and comply with any internal institutional deadlines that may be in place.

Applying using Je-S

You must apply using the Joint Electronic Submission (Je-S) system.

We recommend you start your application early. You can save completed details in Je-S at any time and return to continue your application later.

When applying, select ‘new document’ then:

  • council: ‘EPSRC’
  • document type: ‘outline proposal’
  • scheme: ‘outline’
  • call/type/mode: ‘Sustainable plastics outlines’.

After completing the application, you must ‘submit document’ which will send your application to your host organisation’s administration.

Your host organisation’s administration is required to complete the submission process. You should allow sufficient time for this between submitting your proposal and the closing date.

You can find advice on completing your application in the Je-S handbook.

Your host organisation will also be able to provide advice and guidance on completing your application.

We must receive your application by 15 September 2022 at 16:00.

You will not be able to apply after this time.

Attachments

As well as the Je-S application form, you must submit a case for support.

You may also choose to submit a cover letter. This is optional. There is no page limit for the cover letter and it will not be seen by the peer reviewers.

Case for support

This is a mandatory attachment and can be up to four sides of A4 in length.

It should include:

  • a brief overview of how each member of the applicant team will contribute to the project
  • the scientific challenge, including an indication of how the proposed research will improve the sustainability of the plastics system
  • the proposed programme of research
  • the potential translation pathway for the research outputs
  • the name of at least one project partner
  • resources required
  • estimated costings.

We require the name of at least one project partner already committed to collaborating on the project at the outline stage. Additional project partnerships, included in the application at either the outline or full proposal stage, are welcome.

Costs will not be assessed at this outline stage. They are requested to inform EPSRC’s planning process. However, the overall costing provided at the full application stage is expected to be within 10% of the value provided at this outline stage.

You should attach your documents as PDFs to avoid errors. They should be completed in single-spaced Arial size 11 font or similar-sized sans serif typeface.

Advice on writing proposals for EPSRC funding.

Ethical information

EPSRC will not fund a project if it believes that there are ethical concerns that have been overlooked or not appropriately accounted for. All relevant parts of the ‘ethical information’ section in Je-S must be completed.

Guidance on completing ethical information on the Je-S form.

How we will assess your application

Assessment process

In the event of this opportunity being substantially oversubscribed as to be unmanageable, EPSRC reserves the right to modify the assessment process.

Outline proposal stage

An independent expert peer review panel will be convened. The panel membership will be appointed based on the relevance of each person’s expertise to the opportunity scope. Members will act as ‘generous generalists’ to provide a demonstrably independent assessment process.

The panel will review and score proposals to produce a rank ordered list. Applicants with the highest scoring proposals will be invited to the full proposal stage no later than one week after the independent expert peer review panel meeting.

Opportunity specific criteria

Fit to opportunity (primary)

The expert peer review panel will consider how well the proposal contributes to addressing the aims of the opportunity, including whether it:

  • undertakes novel, ambitious, adventurous and timely bioscience, biotechnology, engineering, information and communications technology (ICT), mathematical sciences or physical sciences research to support a more sustainable plastics system and move towards a circular plastics economy
  • addresses a real-world challenge using a suitable methodology, developed in partnership with relevant stakeholders such as industry or government and with the potential for high impact
  • presents a credible potential translation pathway for the research outputs
  • takes an appropriately interdisciplinary approach, considering the whole system in which the proposed research outcomes will exist.

Feedback

No feedback will be provided from the independent expert peer review panel process, unless this is specifically requested by the panel.

Contact details

For help and advice on costings and writing your proposal, please contact your research office in the first instance, allowing sufficient time for your organisation’s submission process.

Ask a question about the opportunity

Mark Tarplee, Senior Portfolio Manager, manufacturing and the circular economy theme

Email: mark.tarplee@epsrc.ukri.org

Rebecca Cheesbrough, Portfolio Manager, manufacturing and the circular economy theme

Email: rebecca.cheesbrough@epsrc.ukri.org

Rachel Harris, Senior Portfolio Manager, industrial biotechnology

Email: business.unit@bbsrc.ukri.org

Include ‘Research for a plastics circular economy’ in the subject line.

Get help with Je-S

Any queries regarding the submission of proposals through Je-S should be directed to the Je-S helpdesk.

Email

jeshelp@je-s.ukri.org

Telephone

01793 444164

Opening times

Je-S helpdesk opening times

Additional info

Background to this opportunity

Plastics are an essential material within advanced societies. Worldwide, approximately 370 million tonnes of plastics are produced each year.

In 2025, plastic production is expected to reach over 600 million tonnes per year (Plastic Atlas, facts and figures about the world of synthetic polymers). Primarily developed from fossil fuel feedstocks, they have a broad range of applications from preserving food to lightweighting of components to improve energy efficiency of advanced technologies.

Plastics are cheap to produce, durable and often have unrivalled functional properties. However, their extraction and production can have damaging results. Their low cost has led to a culture of disposal and their durability can be problematic at the end of their use-life. A circular economy for plastics could help:

  • reduce resource use and the damage this causes
  • reduce waste
  • improve recycling and recovery processes.

Plastics recycling is a flourishing industry globally, but it is focused primarily on solid packaging. Approximately 50 to 55% of unwanted plastic products are incinerated (energy from waste), go to landfill or become fugitive in the environment.

Where options do exist, current recycling technologies also vary in efficiency and effectiveness. For instance, pure polyethylene terephthalate (PET) waste can be recycled repeatedly without markedly impacting on the properties of the material.

However, for many polymers, current approaches to recycling degrade the material over time. Current methods for recycling of plastics can also be very energy intensive and limited in their ability to process mixed materials.

The UK and devolved administrations have a number of policies of relevance to the area setting out a number of ambitions over the coming decades. These include:

Grant additional conditions

Grants are awarded under the standard UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) grant terms and conditions.

Responsible innovation

EPSRC is fully committed to developing and promoting responsible innovation. Research has the ability to not only produce understanding, knowledge and value, but also unintended consequences, questions, ethical dilemmas and, at times, unexpected social transformations.

We recognise that we have a duty of care to promote approaches to responsible innovation that will initiate ongoing reflection about the potential ethical and societal implications of the research that we sponsor and to encourage our research community to do likewise.

Links to wider programme or area

There are many different definitions of a circular economy. At its heart, UKRI considers it to be about:

  • producing less
  • keeping the products, materials and resources we do use and produce in circulation at their highest value for as long as possible
  • recovering resources after use.

The UKRI 2022 to 2027 strategy aims to drive the development, adoption and diffusion of green technologies, building a sustainable circular economy and a greener future for the UK as we move to net zero. More circular use of resources is crucial to:

  • achieving net zero carbon emission targets
  • reducing resource consumption, waste and pollution harmful to biodiversity
  • enhancing health and resource security
  • offering the UK significant economic, social and environmental benefits.

Supporting the interdisciplinary, whole systems, engineering, physical sciences, maths and information and communications technology research and innovation needed to deliver a circular economy is a priority for EPSRC. It directly delivers against EPSRC’s Engineering Net Zero priority ambitions to collaborate across UKRI to deliver whole systems approaches and solutions to:

  • reduce resource use
  • eliminate pollution
  • deliver a sustainable zero carbon future.

BBSRC supports multi-stakeholder bioscience funding that generates economic, environmental and social benefits through a circular bioeconomy.

This opportunity follows the UKRI £20 million Plastics Research and Innovation Fund and runs concurrent to the UKRI £60 million smart sustainable plastic packaging Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) initiatives.

Full proposal stage requirements

Only applicants who are successful at the outline stage will be invited to submit a full proposal.

Full proposals invited following a successful outline stage must have the ‘related grant’ field completed in Je-S. Please use the option ‘successful outline’.

The full proposal should expand upon the project presented in the outline application, without significant divergence from that. Should a significant divergence be deemed to have occurred, EPSRC reserves the right to reject the full proposal without reference to peer review.

Your full submission counts towards the EPSRC repeatedly unsuccessful applicants policy.

Although proposals may be multi-institutional, only one application form should be submitted for each bid.

EPSRC will need to receive invited full proposal applications by 16:00 on 17 January 2023.

Stage two: full proposal documentation

As well as the Joint Electronic Submission (Je-S) application form, the following documents must be submitted:

  • case for support (eight sides of A4, two on your track record and six on the scientific case which should also show how the proposed research will improve the sustainability of plastics)
  • workplan (no more than one side of A4)
  • justification of resources (up to two sides of A4)
  • CVs (up to two sides of A4 each) for named:
    • postdoctoral staff and researcher co-investigators (research assistants who have made a substantial contribution to the proposal and will be employed on the project for a significant amount of time)
    • visiting researchers
  • letters of support from all project partners included in the Je-S form (no page limit). At least one project partner is required for this opportunity. See the EPSRC guidance on project partners letter of support
  • technical assessments for facilities listed as requiring one in the Je-S guidance (no page limit)
  • host organisation letter of support (up to two sides of A4)
  • cover letter (optional attachment). There is no page limit for this and it is not seen by peer review.

You should attach your documents as PDFs to avoid errors. They should be completed in single-spaced Arial size 11 font or similar-sized sans serif typeface.

Advice on writing proposals for EPSRC funding.

Stage two: assessment criteria

Standard criteria

Quality (primary)

Peer reviewers will assess the research excellence of the proposal, making reference to:

  • the novelty, relationship to the context, timeliness and relevance to identified stakeholders
  • the ambition, adventure, transformative aspects or potential outcomes
  • the suitability of the proposed methodology and the appropriateness of the approach to achieving impact.
National importance (secondary major)

Peer reviewers will assess how the research:

  • contributes to, or helps maintain, the health of other disciplines
  • contributes to addressing key UK societal challenges
  • contributes to future UK economic success and development of emerging industry or industries
  • meets national needs by establishing or maintaining a unique world-leading activity
  • complements other UK research funded in the area, including any relationship to the EPSRC or BBSRC portfolio
  • plans for dissemination and knowledge exchange with potential beneficiaries of the research.
Applicant and partnerships (secondary)

The ability to deliver the proposed project, making reference to the:

  • appropriateness of the track record of the applicant or applicants
  • balance of skills of the project team, including collaborators.
Resources and management (secondary)

The effectiveness of the proposed planning and management and whether the requested resources are appropriate and have been fully justified, making reference to:

  • any equipment requested, or the viability of the arrangements described to access equipment needed for this project, and particularly on any university or third-party contribution
  • any resources requested for activities to either increase impact, for public engagement or to support responsible innovation.

Opportunity specific criteria

Fit to opportunity (secondary major)

Alignment of the research programme to the aims and scope of the opportunity.

Nominating reviewers

As part of the full proposal application process, you will be invited to nominate up to three potential reviewers who you feel have the expertise to assess your proposal.

Please ensure that any nominations meet the EPSRC policy on conflicts of interest.

See more information about the reviewer selection process.

Guidance for reviewers

When completing assessments, reviewers should use the section marked ‘opportunity specific criteria’ to address the fit to opportunity criterion, as defined in the assessment criteria above.

For more information, refer to the:

For interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary proposals, reviewers should state which aspects of the proposal they feel qualified to assess.

Feedback

Feedback on the full proposal is provided by the reviewer’s comments. Unless sifted prior to the meeting, the rank order list information is published on the EPSRC’s Grants on the Web (GOW). Information is published on GOW shortly after the meeting.

Supporting documents

Equality impact assessment (PDF, 234KB)

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