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Capturing Plastics with a Purpose

Honored Contributor
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Contributed by Jenna Jambeck, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Environmental Engineering, College of Engineering, and Director, Center of Focus for Circular Materials Management, New Materials Institute, University of Georgia; Mackenzie Carter, Graduate Research Assistant, University of Georgia

You probably have noticed that nearly everything we purchase or ship is in packaging, and often plastic packaging. But do you ever wonder what happens to packaging after you place it in the bin? At the New Materials Institute at the University of Georgia, research and business partners have come together to challenge the conventional idea that plastic products are manufactured to be used, then thrown away. The institute is a “melting pot” for ideas on materials research, manufacturing and management.

Picture1.pngWithin the New Materials Institute, the Center for Circular Materials Management aims to create a paradigm shift in how we think about plastic manufacture and disposal. Circular materials management is based on the idea that the disposal of a product should be accounted for in the initial design. This creates a proactive system where products are used, then reused, recycled, or disposed of purposefully. In contrast, current waste management systems are reactive solutions to the growing mass of plastics we carelessly dispose of each day.

Like plastics, ideas on materials management do not “appear out of thin air.” The intrinsic value of the New Materials Institute lies in the ability to build relationships between academia and industry. Researchers can provide insight into new materials and processes, while business leaders can turn innovations into real world solutions. A prime example is the partnership of Dr. Jenna Jambeck with Norton Point to use ocean plastics in manufacturing their products.

Each year, nearly 300 million metric tons of plastic are produced globally, about 8 million tons of which will end up in the ocean. Furthermore, 80 percent of the plastic that reaches the ocean will come from land-based sources – mainly uncollected litter and inefficient waste management. Plastics in the ocean present an enormous problem, not only to the environment, but to human health and prosperity as well.

Picture2.pngSome estimates say plastic trash amounts to $80 billion in lost revenue each year, but ocean plastic is difficult to process for a number of reasons: As plastic is exposed to sunlight, temperature variations, wave action, and saltwater, it is mechanically and chemically degraded. The more the plastic degrades, the less commercial value it has. Often, the plastic fractures into tiny particles that are difficult to collect and separate. Degraded and fractured plastics are largely un-recyclable due to the variability of their chemical and mechanical properties. The more time a piece of plastic spends in the ocean, the less feasible it is that it can be collected and reused.

To combat the deluge of plastic waste into the ocean, companies like Norton Point and Dell have made using ocean plastics in their products a crucial objective. Norton Point creates sustainable sunglasses, while Dell uses collected and recycled plastics in their personal computer packaging. Dr. Jambeck’s work on quantifying plastics in the ocean informed both companies’ choices on where and how to collect marine plastic. Factors such as material quantity, supply continuity, proximity to transportation, and availability of plastic pickers and sorters all influence the viability of using ocean plastics for new products.

The New Materials Institute is a valuable forum for leaders from academia and industry to examine how we use materials from manufacture through disposal. Members from both sides can provide valuable insights, and areas of expertise can be leveraged to create innovative solutions. Through partnerships made via the institute, significant problems like plastic waste can be addressed and remedied for the benefit of everyone.

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