Innovate Manchester
David Hilton, advanced manufacturing materials lead, MIDAS
“Dream it, plan it, make it happen” is a mantra embraced by innovators the world over. In Greater Manchester, this approach has long inspired fresh and divergent thinking, driving world class expertise in areas such as computing, advanced materials and the digitalisation of our economy. Across the region there is an innovation ecosystem of SMEs, large businesses, academia and civic organisations that collaborate well, finding common ground and economic opportunities to address some of society’s biggest challenges.
The ERDF funded Innovate Manchester programme, which runs until February 2021, is our latest forum for collaboration. MIDAS and the GC Business Growth Hub created it with FutureEverything to bring together leading thinkers, makers and entrepreneurs to discuss and prototype innovative solutions for key issues within the global economy.
Our first event looked at how we produce and consume to create a more sustainable and future-proof economy. 
One major issue we face is understanding the value of plastics to our society – at the same time as needing to stop plastics being released into the environment.  This was the case made by Professor Michael Shaver, who leads on Polymer Science at the university. As Director of the Sustainable Materials Innovation Hub within the Henry Royce Institute for Advanced Materials, his brief includes supporting Greater Manchester SMEs. His team helps businesses find smarter and more environmentally-friendly ways to use plastics. The belief in thinking big, of starting with the end in mind, was perfectly summed up by the ‘One Bin’ proposals showcased during the event. The idea is a product of the R3 - Rethinking Resources in Recycling programme at the University of Manchester.
One Bin is an ambitious concept. It starts by asking a question: if anything that the public thinks is plastic could go one bin – how could sorting that material work? We lack the technology to achieve that now. The One Bin research group is working with manufacturers, waste management companies and others in the supply chain to look at the ‘fracture points’ that need to be overcome. The end game is new technologies, equipment and processes that would enable a step change in the use and recycling of plastics. The focus is on the elimination of plastic release into the environment – not elimination of plastic use. One Bin is about the retention of that plastic in its highest value condition through re-use, mechanical recycling and chemical recycling. Possible solutions include adding a marker to all plastics at the manufacturing stage – perhaps an embedded dye or code. 
Professor Shaver talked about the complexity of the material world and the communications challenge the plastics industry faces. When the public thinks of plastics it might be in terms of ready meals and other forms of consumer goods packaging. But plastics – polymers – are part of the manufacturing output across a vast range of products and materials, not least fabrics and electronics.  Why do we have so much plastic? Because it serves us well. It was introduced to extend the shelf life of food, to allow us to have energy-efficient food distribution. During the COVID-19 crisis its value has been evident in masks, sanitisers, gloves and PPE.
Professor Shaver believes that we have to overcome an idealised view that ‘plastic is the devil’ and take a comparative view of the cost of using alternative materials.
The starting point in this is accepting that the most important commodity we have is energy. Plastics are efficient to make and lightweight to transport; they do not have a high energetic cost. Alternatives may produce more waste and C02. The task, therefore, is to prioritise a reduction in use of plastics, enable more re-use, and develop new ways to recycle.  His rallying cry to manufacturers, the supply chain and consumers is that we need a sustainable system, not just sustainable plastics.
Sophie Walker, one of the founders of the Manchester-based clean tech business, Dsposal, echoed the need to focus on the system and always consider local waste management capabilities and practices.
She described collaboration as a golden thread that needs to run through everything, from manufacturing to retail and on to companies tasked with dealing with our waste. The end game is a more circular economy.  That means moving away from the ‘make, use, and dispose’ model to an approach where we understand the true value of materials, keep resources in use for as long as possible, and extract the maximum value from them.
Collaboration inevitably means involving different businesses in the conversation, large and small, across multiple sectors.  To take the example of single use plastics, she said some of the plastic alternatives have been produced to look just like plastic. This causes problems in the waste system. Industrial compost producers, for example, will struggle to differentiate between actual plastics and material coming into the system that merely looks plastic. They have to assume that load is contaminated and reject it, meaning the whole load will not get composted. She wants the conversation between manufacturers and the recycling industry to be, ‘What do I need to do, whether it’s a piece of packaging or any other product, so that when it’s finished being useful it can have another life?’ Or be most easily reprocessed, or recycled, or repaired or remanufactured? We have to collaborate to avoid only seeing one part of the chain.
The digitalisation of our waste management industry would also produce manifold benefits, she said. As a nation we lack good data on the waste that we create and its fate. That makes it difficult to understand how we can repurpose these potentially valuable resources because at the moment we have lack a good understanding of what they are, where they are, and what happens to them. 
To achieve this, the UK has to build its digital infrastructure in waste management. The larger waste companies have software and digital systems but about a quarter of waste businesses still record information on paper. 
The inaugural Innovate Manchester event also featured SUEZ, a global player in water and waste management, which spends over 100 million Euros a year on R&D. Stuart Hayward-Higham, UK Technical Development Director, highlighted projects that included extracting wood fibres from MDF, and making bio-methane vehicle fuel from landfill gas. Cutting edge research projects include work on extracting protein from food waste.
Finding ways to create new products and retain value from materials currently being wasted is part of a much wider advanced materials cluster within Greater Manchester. The region has a global reputation for expertise in graphene, along with research strengths in technical textiles, surfaces and coatings, composites and light alloys. The range of research assets that businesses can access includes the UK’s Centre for Advanced Manufacturing – The Henry Royce Institute – in addition to Europe’s largest school of materials based at the University of Manchester.
Some 300 researchers and support colleagues drawn from across The University of Manchester’s academic disciplines work collegiately on graphene and related 2D materials. Over £120m of capital investment has created two flagship facilities for this multidisciplinary graphene community, including the £61m National Graphene Institute NGI, which is a unique academic-led research centre, to the £60m Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre (GEIC) which directly supports industry-facing applications. To date more than 150 commercial partners across the whole of the Graphene in Manchester community, which includes the GEIC and the Bridging the Gap SME project; the NGI and UoM Faculties/Departments; plus UMIP/UoM Innovation Factory).
This pioneering research around advanced materials and manufacturing is a pathway to a cleaner, more energy efficient future – and is creating starting points for new businesses to form and scale-up, and existing companies to innovate and diversify.
The work happening in Greater Manchester addresses one of the most worthwhile challenges of our time: making sure we understand the true value of materials. That knowledge is at the heart of sustainability – the need to create and retain materials in a way that minimises our impact on the environment. Greater Manchester is ahead of many parts of the world in facing up to these challenges. The Mayor, Andy Burnham, has set ambitious targets for the decarbonisation and digitalisation of our economy but no single region or business sector can make the required step-change alone. 
If you are a business and would like to find out more about the world class expertise in advanced materials and manufacturing in Greater Manchester please get in touch.

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