NUTEC Plastics

NUTEC Plastics is the IAEA’s flagship initiative to address the global challenge of plastic pollution. It brings together countries and partners from around the world to fight plastic pollution on two fronts: at point of source, by introducing new technologies to improve plastic recycling; and in the ocean, where the bulk of plastic waste ends up.

Through the IAEA’s NUTEC Plastics initiative, 63 countries are participating in marine monitoring of microplastics, and 30 around the world are developing innovative recycling technology.

Nuclear science and technology can play a key role on both fronts. Irradiation can be used to treat existing plastics and to render them fit for reuse – extending current recycling potential and enabling a wider and higher-value reuse – and nuclear science is used to identify, trace and monitor plastics in the ocean, particularly microplastics.

NUTEC countries 2023
Countries recycling NUTEC 2023

Plastic waste recycling

Through its technical cooperation programme and through coordinated research projects, the IAEA has been carrying out activities to improve national capacities to use radiation technology for plastic waste recycling. In 2021, seventeen countries joined the recycling component of NUTEC Plastics, mostly from Asia and the Pacific. This number grew in 2022, with an additional 38 countries from Europe and Latin America and the Caribbean coming on board. Guidelines, presented at a regional workshop in the Philippines in October 2022, have been developed to support the integration of electron beam technology into existing polymer recycling.

In Asia and the Pacific, activities are focusing on the reutilization and recycling of polymeric waste through radiation modification for the production of industrial goods. Ten countries in the region are participating in the initiative, with four pilot countries - the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand - leading the way, deploying and combining different approaches to polymers recycling.

In the pilot countries the technology has been tested and is ready for upscaling. This is a major step forward for the entire NUTEC Plastics initiative, as it marks the transition from the research phase to the development phase. Industrial collaboration will be a central component of the new phase of the initiative in the four pilot countries. To partner with us click here.

Marine monitoring

The goal of the marine plastics monitoring component of NUTEC Plastics is to equip over 50 labs worldwide with the technology and know-how required to sample and analyse marine microplastics in the oceans, and to enable reporting on SDG 14, Life Under Water. The laboratories will form a network of NUTEC Plastic Monitoring Laboratories to support the harmonization of sampling and analysis protocols and the sharing of experience, best practices, and data on marine microplastic pollution. Sixty-three countries are currently taking part in the marine plastics monitoring component of NUTEC Plastics. It will help build the capacity of laboratories around the world to deploy nuclear and isotopic techniques, and to monitor and assess the impact of marine plastic pollution. The evidence based information on the abundance and impact of marine plastic pollution will also contribute to the Global Partnership on Marine Litter, a multi-stakeholder partnership led by the United Nations Environment Programme which brings together all the actors working on marine litter and plastic pollution prevention and reduction.  

So far, 21 laboratories have been equipped for basic sample collection capacities, five laboratories have intermediate sampling and counting capacities (Colombia, Japan, Pakistan, Philippines, Thailand), seven have been identified as advanced, in Belize, Brazil, Chile, China, Ecuador, Panama and the United Arab Emirates, and two have been designated as Regional Reference Hubs, in Australia and Kuwait. Regional hubs are centres with advanced capacities in the analysis of microplastics, including the dating of environmental records. These hubs will be able to report on the status and trends of plastic pollution in seas and oceans, and provide capacity building support to other laboratories. The IAEA Environmental Laboratories in Monaco are also acting as a Reference Hub.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, the Research Network of Marine-Coastal Stressors in Latin America and the Caribbean – REMARCO – has finalized harmonized microplastics sampling and analysis protocols. These are now being transferred to countries in the region through training and implementation in national microplastic monitoring programmes.

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