A programme funding and enabling 37 Greater Manchester companies to collaborate with universities to tackle climate change is on target to cut 3,850 tonnes of CO2 emissions.

Eco-I North West, a large-scale research and development initiative, supports small and medium-sized companies (SMEs) from any sector to develop low carbon innovations in partnership with six of the North West’s leading universities – Lancaster, Central Lancashire, Cumbria, Liverpool, Liverpool John Moores and Manchester Metropolitan.

Launched in 2020, the three-year programme, which is part funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), is now working with more than 180 SMEs across the region, including 37 in Greater Manchester, to create new sustainable technologies, products and services to accelerate the green economic recovery.

With a year remaining, Eco-I NW is on target to help 369 businesses to develop 135 new innovative solutions and remove 3,850 tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere, supporting the UK government’s target of achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

The success of the programme and its future vision were the focus of an event at Lancaster University called ‘Journeys to Net Zero: Collaboration Showcase’.

More than 200 stakeholders heard from speakers such as Michael Pawlyn, designer of the Eden Project in Cornwall, journalist and author John Robb, Camila Rock De Luigi, the architect behind Eden North, along with Chris Taylor and Graeme Heyes from Manchester Metropolitan University, before presentations from some of the SMEs already partnering with universities through Eco-I NW.

Among them was My Medical Mask, based in Bolton, developing a new medical grade, reusable and transparent respirator mask made from biodegradable materials.

Dr Usman Riaz, Director, said:

“ We are dedicated to finding viable, sustainable and eco-friendly alternatives to single-use PPE and we firmly believe our innovation could be a real game-changer for the healthcare sector.

“ The development of this mask will dramatically reduce the carbon footprint of the sector, reduce waste, and significantly improve communication between patients and practitioners.

“ The research and development work carried out in partnership with Lancaster University has been extraordinary and we would encourage other SMEs to explore the opportunities.

Enviroo, based in Manchester is currently building a recycling plant in Ellesmere Port which will be capable of turning plastic bottles into food-grade packaging. Its R&D project is being supported by Libby Checketts, the graduate researcher from Lancaster University, and focussed on behavioural research and deposit return schemes.

Libby said:

“ In the UK we have high levels of recycling at home, but this isn’t always reflected in public spaces. I’m exploring deposit return schemes, which are very common in Europe and some other parts of the world, and which the Government is planning on introducing to the UK in the next few years.

“ This project will help Enviroo create a more effective system for using reverse vending machines to collect high-quality feedstock for its recycling plant.

Eco-I NW is now looking to connect with the next wave of businesses offering access to fully-funded interns from a pool of highly motivated and talented students across the six universities, match-funded postgraduate researchers for more long term projects, and capital grants to fund prototypes, pilots and demonstration systems.

Andy Pickard, Manager of Eco-I NW and the Centre for Global Eco-Innovation, said:

“ This first two years of the Eco-I NW programme have been extremely challenging in view of the pandemic, which highlights the incredible achievement that we have managed to support 180 businesses to lead the region’s transition towards a low carbon economy.

“ The key message that came from our showcase event is that Eco-I NW is doing fantastic work to create a melting pot of disruptive innovation, driven by conversation and collaboration. However, to achieve the rapid transition to more sustainable economies and societies in the face of the climate emergency, we need to grow our network of collaborators.

“ The North West has the knowledge, people and industry to be world-leading in the transition to a better economy which is sensitive also to the needs of the environment. And with more than 560,000 SMEs in the region, the opportunity for this crucial collective to create green growth is immense.

“ This is why I would encourage any small or medium business in the region, whatever their sector and whatever stage of their journey they are on, to make contact with the Eco-I NW team.