Illinois co-leads DOE grant to engineer bioplastic packaging that's infinitely recyclable
The Department of Energy has granted $2 million over three years to Braskem America, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and Princeton University to develop plastic that can be recycled perpetually, reducing waste and pollution from single-use plastics.
This private-public effort is among seven supported by $13.4 million in DOE funding to reduce single-use plastics' carbon emissions and improve their recyclability through next-generation plastic technologies.
"Plastic packaging, which accounts for the majority of littered material, is currently impossible to recycle because it is made of multiple layers of material that cannot be separated," said Damien Guironnet, an expert in polymer chemistry at Illinois. "Our approach is to create a one-layer plastic that would achieve the properties as current multilayer packaging material — to finally make plastic packaging recyclable."
The team will focus their effort on redesigning polyethylene (PE) packaging material to produce plastic packaging that can be recycled infinitely or safely degrade in the environment. PE is used to create the majority of single-use plastic objects. In fact, more PE is produced annually by volume than any other plastic. The perks of PE are its low cost and mechanical strength.
But, PE has poor oxygen barrier properties, which is problematic for packaging foods that are prone to spoil or protect medicines during transit. PE packaging uses extra layers to block oxygen — but these added layers also make the ensemble unrecyclable. Therefore, the team is reimagining how to increase the oxygen barrier of polyethylene to create packaging that can be recycled.
"We'll engineer the molecular structure to create a single-material plastic to achieve what can only be achieved today by multiple materials," said Richard Register, an expert in polymer structure-property relationships at Princeton. "The benefits are two-fold: reducing manufacturing complexity and enabling mechanical recycling of materials that today accumulate in landfills."
Beyond the design of new recyclable packaging material, the team will construct their material using Braskem’s unique bio-polyethylene platform, a sustainable source of PE derived from biochemicals.
Ultimately, this private-public partnership stands to develop a bio-based, recyclable, and biodegradable plastic packaging material for large-scale end-consumer applications.
“I am excited by the prospect of designing a material that everyone will use but won’t harm the environment,” Guironnet said. “It is motivating to imagine eliminating the kind of plastics that would clutter our planet for hundreds of years and replacing it with a whole new plastic that can be recycled or safely degrade.”