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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Biodegradable, Recyclable:
Designing Products for a Better End-of-Use Outcome

As part of an effort to recognize and learn from a wide array of organizations about the ways we can each make a positive impact on people and the planet, Shaw is spotlighting 10 diverse organizations intently focused on products and initiatives that support the wellbeing of people and the planet.

One of those organizations, the University of Georgia New Materials Institute, partners with industry, businesses, governments, foundations and others to design materials and systems that promote circularity in materials management. The intent: less waste and materials, and products and systems that are “safe for people, animals and Earth.” The Institute also trains the next generation of scientists and engineers in the American Chemistry Society’s Principles of Green Engineering.

We posed three questions to Dr. Jason Locklin, director of the New Materials Institute, to learn more about the Institute’s work and the opportunities it provides for those involved — from students and faculty to industry partners — to make a collective, positive impact.

Can you please tell us a little bit about the scope of the problem that the New Materials Institute is working to solve — and a bit about how you approach that problem?

Dr. Jason Locklin: It’s estimated that 6.8 million metric tons of trash is generated globally every day. We know that about 42 percent of this waste is from single-use packaging — including shipping materials, water bottles; and packaging for food, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. Single-use plastics comprise the largest market sector for plastic resins in the world. We also know, from research conducted by our faculty and others, that 90.5 percent of all plastics ever made have never been recycled (This fact was selected as the 2018 Statistic of the Year by the Royal Statistical Society). Prior to this study, we did not know how much plastic had been produced globally, how much was being landfilled, or how much was accumulating in our oceans and our environment due to mismanagement at the end of a useful life.

Our Institute focuses on designing materials for this sector that degrade completely into a natural state, as quickly as possible and without any toxic residue, once they have served their useful life. For example: Our materials may be used to make a clamshell to hold the hamburger you order for lunch, or to line a paper coffee cup that will hold your morning coffee. When you are done utilizing these items, we want you to dispose of them in the proper environment. But, should these items be mismanaged and end up along the roadside, they will still degrade completely, back into a natural state that is safe for the environment. With the current materials in use for single-use items, a lot of materials you think are recyclable are actually not. For example: Paper coffee cups are currently lined with a plastic coating, which makes the cups last much longer in the environment than they should, and, because it’s hard to separate the paper from the plastic coating, these are not recyclable with any economic viability. We think a better material for the inside of that cup is one that serves its function in terms of holding hot coffee until you finish your cup, is non-toxic; and, after you are done with that coffee, allows the paper to be repulped and recycled efficiently or degrades quickly in compost.

Can you share some projects that you’re excited about?

JL: We are excited to be a research site for the Center for Bioplastics and Biocomposites (CB2), which is a National Science Foundation Industry-University Cooperative Research Center program. We have 40 member companies participating in CB2, and UGA is one of four research centers in this program. Shaw is an active and participating member in the consortium; along with a diverse group of other companies including BASF, 3M, Hyundai Motor Company, Kimberly-Clark and Ford. The goal of the consortium is to look at both fundamental and translational research for companies that have a real push to improve using biobased, biodegradable or bio-benign content into their product lines. The focus is to work on projects that will involve biobased materials — new polymers or natural materials that can be used in composites — that are of interest to multiple companies.

We have been part of CB2 for more than a year, along with Iowa State University, Washington State University and North Dakota State University. Each of these institutions brings their own expertise and research, and our skill sets complement one another. The University of Georgia’s role in that effort is developing new materials that are biologically degradable, assessing materials and strategies at end of use, and bringing in end-of-use considerations during the design phase of a project.

Tell us about some of your keys to success.

JL: It comes down to finding the right engagements with our industry partners at UGA. The research we do is important because we train the next generation of scientists and engineers. But we also want to make sure that the research is translated — and can make the impacts we claim that it can make.

We have found that it’s critical to ask the right questions to our industry partners. A lot of industry partners participate in a variety of different academic and nonprofit centers and institutes. We ask a lot of the companies what they like and dislike about those other engagements. We look for ways to set up a structure to better help our industry partners serve their shareholders and stakeholders. And, at the same time, we provide access to students and future employees that are going to be trained to make an immediate impact in your company.

What we have found through our work with a variety of companies in different sectors is, that it takes a while to find the right people and make the right connections within a company. We need to engage on a variety of levels. Partnerships that are successful take time and patience to work through relationship-building. Our most intimate and productive relationships are with companies that understand this and allow us the time to develop the relationship together.

What have been some of your lessons learned?

JL: One of the things helping us is that we know what we are good at. If our goals and expertise don’t align directly with the goals of our industry partner, it’s better to state that upfront and suggest places where the benefit might be better. We have done that in the case of end-of-life design. The things that others do better, we suggest engagements with other companies or universities better suited to do that work.

Can you please share a bit more about your research focus — specifically on your efforts to create environmentally low-impact materials for packaging and other single uses?

JL: One of the New Materials Institute’s major focus areas is understanding the data that can be collected from cleaning up the environment — understanding the flow of materials that makes its way into the landfill or the environment. From there, we look at the top materials and make those our research targets.

For example, if you think about the sheer volume of plastic produced (if you take away fiber/textiles), about 40 percent of that is packaging — even more if you include packaging and single-use items. It’s not a surprise that those are the items that show up in a landfill or waste-management infrastructure. So, we are looking at how we can develop materials that can be used for things like food packaging and packaging in general that have a different end of life than being persistent in the environment. We are also thinking about flexible packaging and films that are incredibly difficult to deconstruct and recycle. We are developing materials that can be discarded with food waste and returned through organic recycling (converted into compost); or, if they make their way into a landfill, through anaerobic digestion can be converted into methane and energy to power the landfill.

We want to explore how we can design materials that have a different end-of-use consequence than just being persistent in the environment. The same process can be applied to more complex materials. We want to design multilayer materials in such a way that at its end of life, it can be recycled or put back into another product, not just end up in a landfill or the environment.

It’s an area where we are committed to redesigning materials and in the context of biological degradation, take a waste stream and convert it into something useful at the end of its life when we don’t believe that the material can be viably or economically recycled.

This article is one in a series of articles recognizing 10 diverse organizations intently focused on products and initiatives that support the wellbeing of people and the planet, as part of Shaw’s sustain[HUMAN]ability™ recognition program. To read more about the other organizations recognized by Shaw for their efforts, visit the landing page for this blog series.