Published May 19, 2021
The flexible plastic that wraps around meat and countless other consumer goods is almost always sent to the landfill.
A new UB-led research project aims to change that. UB and partners have received a two-year, $555,000 grant to deconstruct these materials and find secondary uses for them.
The effort addresses one of the biggest streams of plastic waste, and it could help ease the plastic pollution crisis that’s threatening drinking water, wildlife, food supplies and more.
“This is a very common form of plastic that has in many ways flown under the radar when it comes to recycling,” says Paschalis Alexandridis, UB Distinguished Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, who is leading the effort. “The upside is that we think there are ways to repurpose these materials in an energy-efficient and environmentally friendly manner.”
Project partners include Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Modern Corporation. Funding comes from the REMADE Institute, a public-private partnership established by the U.S. Department of Energy Advanced Manufacturing Office to accelerate the nation’s transition to a circular economy.
Nearly 50% of the world’s plastic waste comes from packaging, according to Our World in Data, a scientific research publication based at the University of Oxford. Within that stream of waste, about 50% consists of polymer-based, multilayer packaging. The major component of these thin layers of plastic is polyolefins. Common examples include Saran Wrap and Cling Wrap.
Researchers will investigate how to separate polyolefins and other plastics from additives or impurities by using advanced solvents. The goal is to render the polyolefins suitable for reuse in new products, such as containers for liquids like milk and detergent.
“We’re not breaking down any molecules; we’re deconstructing them by peeling off and separating polyolefin layers from other materials,” says Alexandridis, adding that the approach, called chemical recycling, creates fewer greenhouse gas emissions than other recycling methods.
Ultimately, the project’s objectives are to deconstruct flexible films and multilayer packaging utilizing delamination, recover polyolefin films using separation processes and validate that the recovered plastics can replace primary materials without loss of properties or performance.
Co-principal investigators from UB include John D. Atkinson, associate professor and the Scott and Coleen Stevens Chair in Engineering Sustainability in the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering; Amit Goyal, SUNY Distinguished Professor and Empire Innovation Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering; Michael A. Shelly, environmental economist at the UB RENEW Institute; and Marina Tsianou, associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.