Leveraging Nuclear Technology for Plastic Waste Management

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IAEA is partnering with a number of countries in Asia and the Pacific to transform plastic waste into valuable materials through the use of radiation technology.


The burgeoning crisis of marine plastic pollution is causing widespread concern across the globe. Plastic pollution transcends national boundaries and threatens both human health and the environment. Despite recycling efforts, only less than 10% of plastic waste is successfully recycled or repurposed, leaving the majority to accumulate in landfills and dumps or mismanaged and becoming dispersed in the environment. Consequently, plastic waste degrades over time to small particles, which end up in water streams and eventually the ocean. More than 10 million tons of plastic enter our oceans each year. If the current trends persists, by 2025, the ocean could contain 1 tonne of plastic for every 3 tonnes of fish; by 2050, plastics might outweigh fish. This calls for innovative solutions to mitigate plastic pollution.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is spearheading a novel approach to reduce plastic pollution volumes using nuclear technologies as part of the IAEA NUclear TEChnology for Controlling Plastic Pollution (NUTEC Plastics) initiative. An ongoing NUTEC Plastics project, involving countries across Asia and the Pacific, aims to tackle plastic pollution in Southeast Asia by upcycling plastic waste—transforming it into value-added products—using radiation technology.

Asia is responsible for two-thirds of the total plastics reaching the ocean from rivers, and a 2015 study said five of the top 10 contributors to plastic pollution were located in Southeast Asia. These countries have extensive coastlines and are home to biodiversity-rich ecosystems of global importance. Thus, efforts to curb plastic pollution in Southeast Asia are expected to have significant global impact.

Since its launch in 2021, NUTEC Plastics is combating plastic pollution in a downstream and upstream approach by scaling up the application of nuclear technologies for marine microplastics monitoring and impact assessment and for reducing plastic waste volumes through upcycling and recycling. NUTEC is collaborating with IAEA member states worldwide to enhance understanding of microplastics' abundance and impact on coastal and marine ecosystems using isotopic tracing techniques. Simultaneously, NUTEC is pioneering solutions to plastic pollution using radiation technology to complement traditional recycling methods, promoting the creation of a circular economy.

How does recycling/upcycling with irradiation work?

Ionizing radiation can modify the structure and properties of various materials under moderate conditions, catalyzing reactions without the need for additional chemicals and saving energy by avoiding the use of extreme temperatures. Currently employed as a manufacturing tool, for instance, by vehicle tire producers to enhance rubber stability, radiation technology shows promise for transforming plastic waste into value-added products.

By enabling generation of upscaled secondary products from plastic waste, such as wood-plastic composites (WPC), instead of downscaled ones, radiation technology can leverage economic drivers for plastic upcycling.

Radiation can be harnessed to help us manage plastic waste more efficiently. Here's how:

  • It can modify the surface characteristics of different plastics to help them blend together more easily or to bind with other, unalike materials to generate composites.
  • Radiation can also generate an electric charge on the surface of plastics. This makes it easier to accurately sort plastic waste and extend the amount and number of times that the waste can be recycled, e.g., thermoplastics, which can be melted and reshaped multiple times.
  • It can enhance an advanced recycling process called pyrolysis, which is used to transform hard-to-recycle plastics into fuel and raw materials for manufacturing. This approach helps reduce the costs of this process.
  • Finally, radiation can aid in utilizing plant-based sources for the production of biodegradable plastics or biofuels. This strategy helps us shift away from the use of plastics derived from non-renewable petroleum.
What upscaled products are Asian countries producing?

The NUTEC Plastics initiative’s four Southeast Asian pilot countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand) have already made impressive progress in 2022 and 2023. They have provided successful experimental proofs of concept for their respective technologies, shifting activities from a research focus to a development approach, and making way for the establishment of industrial partnerships.

To promote development, IAEA coordinates collaboration between research groups, NUTEC Agency partners, and industry through national stakeholders meetings in the pilot countries. Malaysia and Indonesia hosted successful meetings in 2022, with similar events planned in October and November 2023 for Thailand and the Philippines, respectively. IAEA also provides necessary resources to the national teams in research institutions in the participating member states and conducts regional training programs for project participants. The next training, scheduled for November 2023 in Manila, Philippines, will focus on strengthening the use of electron beam accelerators for polymer modifications.

Several of these participating countries, particularly Indonesia and the Philippines, are planning to produce construction materials, including tiles and bricks, made from fiber-plastic composites. Radiation enables strong bonding between the fiber and the plastic to fabricate durable materials. These building materials must meet high-quality standards, the fabrication of which traditionally requires the use of chemicals to achieve desired properties. However, radiation technology is green and can avoid using such chemicals, leading to similar or even superior material mechanical characteristics.

In Thailand, waste plastic fishing nets are to be recycled into raw materials, such as HDPE (high-density polyethylene) pellets. HDPE is a versatile plastic material used in manufacturing a range of products, including containers like shampoo bottles, toys, and water pipes. Application of radiation allows meeting specification requirements of HDPE sourced from discarded fishing nets.

Indonesia and Malaysia are collaborating with private partners to incorporate radiation technology into advanced plastic waste recycling of difficult-to-recycle plastics, such as laminates often used in packaging. This combined advanced recycling approach, radiation-assisted pyrolysis, offers money savings; it can lower the required process temperature, in some cases by more than 100 degrees Celsius, thereby saving energy, and does not require additional chemicals.

The way forward

Over the last years capacity-building and training activities in the participating countries have been consistently conducted under the NUTEC Plastics Initiative. Currently, research and laboratory validation tests are underway in the pilot countries. As the pilot countries move forward, securing experimental proof of concept and estimates of potential upscaled throughput, financial feasibility can be projected. This will lead to technology demonstration in an appropriate environment, showcasing a system prototype or pilot plant in an operational environment, a critical milestone of the NUTEC Plastics initiative.

The insights gained from these pilot plants will be crucial for scaling operations through to large-scale demonstration plants. Following the successful demonstration of scalability, IAEA will disseminate the knowledge, expertise, and technology to partners for commercialization and integration into national and regional initiatives.


ADB Knowledge Events. 2023. NUTEC Plastics: NUclear TEchnology for Controlling Plastic Pollution. ADB Data Room: Circular Economy. Session 12 of webinar series.

Ellen MacArthur Foundation. 2017. The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics & Catalysing Action.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). NUTEC Plastics.

J. R. Jambeck et al. 2015. Plastic Waste Inputs from Land into the Ocean. Science. 347. pp. 768–771.

R. Geyer, J. R. Jambeck, and K L. Law. 2017. Production, Use, and Fate of All Plastics Ever Made. Science Advances. 3 (7).

L.C.M. Lebreton et al. 2017. River Plastic Emissions to the World’s Oceans. Nature Communications. 8, (Article No. 15611).

Denis Subbotnitskiy
Programme Management Officer, Division for Asia and the Pacific, Department of Technical Cooperation, International Atomic Energy Agency

Denis Subbotnitskiy oversees the portfolio of projects in healthcare, agriculture, energy, water resources, and industrial applications. He manages the IAEA NUTEC initiative project RAS1024 on plastic recycling in Asia and the Pacific region and has extensive experience in energy and sustainable development. He has a PhD in Mathematical Economics and master’s degrees from LSE and University of Missouri.

Celina Horak
Section Head, Radiochemistry and Radiation Technology Section, Division of Physics and Chemistry Sciences, Department of Nuclear Sciences and Application, International Atomic Energy Agency

Celina Horak coordinates the IAEA section that aims to strengthen the capacities of member states in developing and implementing radiation technology for health care, cleaner industrial processes and practices, and advance functional materials; and in producing radioisotope products and radiopharmaceuticals for the management of cancer and other chronic diseases. She contributes to the NUTEC Plastics initiative in the technical aspects of upcycling strategies by using radiation technology.

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