Climate & Environment

    Climate & Environmental Pollution

AXA Chairs


Plastic Waste Upcycling by Carbon Dioxide Valorization

Polyethylene, Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), and polystyrene are well-known materials that are part of the plastics category, which became in vogue and ubiquitous in less than 60 years. For many years, they have been considered a treasure thanks to the benefits they provide. However, they also have proven to be a major challenge after their use. Globally, around 250 million metric tons of plastic waste are generated each year, and only around 30 percent of this plastic is recycled, the non-recycled part ending up in landfill or in oceans. Furthermore, the production and consumption of those plastics rely mostly on the use of large quantities of fossil fuels – especially single-use plastics. Those plastics have a global impact on human and environmental health, both at the production and recycling stages of their life cycle.  



Université de Mons





ORCID Open Researcher and Contributor ID, a unique and persistent identifier to researchers

Over the last decade, scientists have been looking for ways to minimize the impact of plastics on our planet, one of them being the development of biodegradable materials. However, fully biodegradable plastic is designed to decay at temperatures above 50 °C, which means it is not going to biodegrade anywhere else than in specialized facilities. Most of the time, it will break into smaller and smaller plastic particles of 5 mm or under - known as microplastics - which are even more harmful to the environment.

Another more promising technique being developed by scientists is the valorization of plastic wastes – i.e., converting them into products of a higher value. Using various chemical processes, researchers are developing chemical routes to upcycle these wastes; based on a “recycle, reuse, reduce” concept, they have shown real benefits. From an economic point of view, recycled plastics trade at a 20-40 percent discount compared to oil-based plastics, making it financially attractive for the industry. The higher the price of oil, the more attractive recycled plastics become. Given the increasing tension on oil resources, the financial benefit of such valorization might increase over time. With the global transformation towards circular economies and lower carbon emissions, plastic recycling should increasingly replace virgin plastics production.

With the AXA Research Chair at UMons, Prof. Olivier Coulembier aims at unleashing the potential of two emblematic plastic wastes, carbon dioxide and polyolefins – one of the most environmentally polluting families of plastics – to create new functional materials with superior properties. This will be done through a stepwise approach based on complemental work packages that can be outlined as follows:

  • Fundamental research on the synthesis of new specific small organic molecules, named organo-catalysts, and the development of reactions able to chemically transform plastic wastes by dedicated treatments
  • The development of new molecules and the clever selection of already existing candidates to improve the ability to sequester and reuse carbon dioxide
  • The design of a realistic industrial set-up to associate the previous two points and demonstrate the real societal impact of the project

Polymer chemists like Prof. Coulembier have now the responsibility and the obligation to reinvent the way to design and recycle plastics while decoupling their fabrication from fossil feedstock. To do so, Prof. Coulembier aims to strengthen a well-set international academic network and to initiate collaborations with new academic and industrial partners. To maximize the societal impact of his chair, Prof. Coulembier will work “hand-in-hand” with industries to figure out both the business strategy and the new process developments to initiate the expected plastic wastes upcycling with carbon dioxide.

November 2022