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By Lynn L. Bergeson 
 
On January 11, 2022, the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy (EERE) announced that seven research and development (R&D) projects were selected to receive $13.4 million in funding for R&D projects to advance next generation plastic technologies to reduce the energy consumption and carbon emissions of single-use plastics. The selected R&D projects, led by industry and universities, will focus on converting plastic films into more valuable materials and designing new plastics that are more recyclable and biodegradable. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm stated that “By advancing technologies that repurpose single-use plastics and make the materials biodegradable, we can hit a trifecta of reduced plastic waste, fewer emissions from the plastics industry, and an influx of clean manufacturing jobs for American workers.”
 
According to DOE’s EERE, less than ten percent of plastics are recycled currently. Those plastics that are recycled are typically “downcycled” or repurposed into low-value products. The selected projects will work to develop affordable solutions for “upcycling” plastics into more valuable materials and to design new plastics that are recyclable and biodegradable.


 

By Lynn L. Bergeson and Ligia Duarte Botelho, M.A.
 
On December 7, 2021, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published a study titled: “A Chemicals Perspective on Designing with Sustainable Plastics: Goals, Considerations and Trade-offs.” The study builds on considerations from a similar OECD report from 2018 by analyzing four sector-specific case studies on insulation, flooring, biscuit wrappers, and detergent bottles. To produce this study, OECD conducted literature reviews, interviews, and workshops with chemists and suppliers, examining the chemicals perspective on the material selection process informing designers and engineering in finding sustainable plastics for their products. OECD concludes the study by identifying limitations and recommending the following next steps:

  • Identify and address knowledge gaps within scientific insights on chemicals;
  • Continue to promote chemical innovation for improved outcomes for products and their operating environment;
  • Integrate sustainability design goals earlier in the design process;
  • Broaden the scope to include other materials families; and
  • Involve more stakeholders.

The full study and a webinar hosted by OECD on December 7, 2021, are available here.


 

By Lynn L. Bergeson and Ligia Duarte Botelho, M.A.

On October 28, 2021, the Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech) announced that several of its scientists discovered in a study that bioplastics can be chemically recycled into nitrogen-rich fertilizers in an environmentally friendly manner. Assistant Professor Daisuke Aoki and Professor Hideyuki Otsuka led the study hoping to address plastic pollution, petrochemical resource depletion, and world hunger. In their novel method, plastics produced from biomass (bioplastics) are chemically recycled back into fertilizers.
 
The study was published in Green Chemistry, a Royal Society of Chemistry journal focused on innovation research on sustainable and eco-friendly technologies.


 

By Lynn L. Bergeson and Ligia Duarte Botelho, M.A.

On October 7, 2021, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) announced that the Green Ribbon Science Panel (GRSP) will hold a meeting from 12:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. (EDT) on November 5, 2021. The meeting will focus on microplastic research and policy.
 
GRSP was established to act as a resource for the implementation of California’s Green Chemistry Law. GRSP provides technical advice to the DTSC Director and the California Environmental Policy Council (CEPC) on scientific matters related to the development of policy recommendations and implementation strategies on green chemistry and chemicals through DTSC’s Safer Consumer Products (SCP) program. Additional topics covered by GRSP as the SCP program continues to expand include:


 

By Lynn L. Bergeson 

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) posted a WatchBlog item entitled “Can Chemical Recycling Reduce Plastic Pollution?” on October 5, 2021. The item looks at GAO’s September 2021 Science & Tech Spotlight: Advanced Plastic Recycling. According to GAO, chemical recycling could reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in landfills, potentially reducing the release of chemicals into the environment. Chemical recycling can produce high-quality raw materials, decreasing the demand for fossil fuels and other natural resources. GAO states that the obstacles to using chemical recycling include process and technology challenges, high startup and operating costs, and limited incentives for recycling innovation and investment. GAO notes that new plastics produced from fossil fuels are typically cheaper to produce than recycled plastics, in part due to transportation costs and limited recycling infrastructure, making recycled plastics less marketable. Key questions for policymakers include:

What steps could the federal government, states, and other stakeholders take to further incentivize chemical recycling rather than disposal? What are the potential benefits and challenges of these approaches?

What steps could policymakers take to support a transition toward a circular economy -- one in which products are not disposed of but are recycled for reuse including innovation -- and investment in manufacturing and recycling capacity?

What might policymakers do to promote advanced recycling technologies while also reducing the hazards associated with existing plastic production and recycling methods?

One issue that GAO fails to consider is the regulatory status of depolymerized plastic. Furthermore, making a polymer by depolymerizing plastic is, according to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) nomenclature rules, different than the virgin polymer. These nomenclature complications will likely be a barrier to the commercialization of the closed-loop chemical recycling of plastics.


 

By  Lynn L. Bergeson

On April 13, 2021, Montana State University (MSU) researchers from its Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering published an article entitled “Biomineralization of Plastic Waste to Improve the Strength of Plastic-Reinforced Cement Mortar.” The study evaluates calcium carbonate biomineralization techniques applied to coat plastic waste and improve the compressive strength of plastic-reinforced mortar (PRM), a type of plastic-reinforced cementitious material (PRC). In an effort to reduce the environmental impact of plastic pollution, the study tested two types of biomineralization treatments: enzymatically induced calcium carbonate precipitation (EICP) and microbially induced calcium carbonate precipitation (MICP). While MICP treatment of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) resulted in PRMs with compressive strength similar to that of plastic-free mortar, EICP-treated PET resulted in weaker strength than that of MICP. MICP treatment, however, affects differently the compressive strength of PRM in various types of plastics. According to the researchers, further work is needed to understand the impact of MICP treatment on interfacial strength. The authors hope that greater knowledge of this mechanism will lead to the establishment of biomineralized PRC as a high-volume method to reuse plastic waste.


 

By  Lynn L. Bergeson and Ligia Duarte Botelho, M.A.
 
On May 25, 2021, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced the availability of up to $14.5 million in investments for research and development (R&D) to reduce waste and energy use related to the recycling of single-use plastics. As the largest subset of plastics found in landfills, single-use plastics, including plastic bags, wraps, and films, are also among the most challenging to recycle. According to DOE, plastic production uses the same amount of oil around the world as the aviation industry. Only ten percent of plastics, however, are currently recycled, and most of those plastics are downcycled, or repurposed into low-value products. DOE Secretary of Energy, Jennifer M. Granholm, hopes that these funds supporting plastic recycling innovation will be a “triple win by cutting plastic waste we see in our everyday lives, reducing industrial energy use and resulting emissions, and creating clean manufacturing jobs for American workers.” This is an effort by DOE to decarbonize the plastics industry and increase investments in recycling processes. There are many obstacles to plastic film recycling, including collection, sorting, contamination, and lack of economically viable methods for recycling and upcycling. Therefore, DOE will support various projects to develop viable solutions for converting plastic films to more valuable materials and designing plastics that are more recyclable and biodegradable.

In addition to a concept paper and full application, the application process requires a description of how diversity, equity, and inclusion objectives will be incorporated into the project. Submission deadlines are as follows:

  • Concept Paper – Deadline: June 28, 2021, by 5:00 p.m. (EDT);
  • Full Application – Deadline: August 16, 2021, by 5:00 p.m. (EDT); and
  • View Full Application Reviewer Comments – Between September 23, 2021, and September 28, 2021, by 5:00 p.m. (EDT).

 

By  Lynn L. Bergeson and Ligia Duarte Botelho, M.A.

On March 25, 2021, researchers from the University of Maryland Department (UMD) of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) published, in Nature Sustainability, a study titled “A strong, biodegradable and recyclable lignocellulosic bioplastic.”  The study outlines UMD MSE’s new in situ lignin regeneration strategy that synthesizes a high-performance bioplastic from lignocellulosic resources such as wood.  According to the published article, renewable and biodegradable materials derived from biomass often exhibit mechanical performance and wet stability that are insufficient for practical applications.  Given these circumstances, the newly developed method for bioplastic production improves efficiency and reduces environmental impacts because it involves only green and recyclable chemicals.  The study can be accessed here, detailing the process in which porous matrices of natural wood are deconstructed to form the lignocellulosic bioplastic.


 

By   Lynn L. Bergeson and Ligia Duarte Botelho, M.A.

On January 19, 2021, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) released its Plastics Innovation Challenge Draft Roadmap (Draft Roadmap) alongside a Request for Information (RFI) seeking stakeholder input on the draft document. The Plastics Innovation Challenge is a DOE program focused on accelerating innovations in energy-efficient plastic recycling technologies. The aim of the Plastics Innovation Challenge is to make domestic processing of plastic waste energy efficient and economically viable, develop new and improved plastic materials lacking the same end-of-life concerns as incumbent materials, and to reduce plastic waste accumulation. Based on these aims, the Plastics Innovation Challenge has outlined four strategic goals within its scope:

  • Deconstruction: Develop biological and chemical methods for deconstructing plastic wastes into useful chemicals;
     
  • Upcycling: Develop technologies to upcycle waste chemical streams into higher value products;
     
  • Recycle by Design: Design new, renewable plastics and bioplastics that are easily upcycled and can be manufactured domestically at scale; and
     
  • Scale and Deployment: Support an energy and material-efficient domestic plastics supply chain.

The Draft Roadmap, therefore, identifies key research needs and opportunities for DOE-sponsored research and development (R&D). It also identifies challenges and opportunities across thermal, chemical, biological, and physical recycling and upcycling methods, as well as material design strategies for recyclability. According to DOE, the Draft Roadmap additionally:

  • Provides an overview of the plastic waste problem;
     
  • Identifies the initiative’s 2030 vision, mission, strategic goals, and objectives;
     
  • Details challenges and opportunities identified by previous DOE activities;
     
  • Lays out key research directions;
     
  • Delivers an outline of current DOE activities, capabilities and coordination; and
     
  • Describes targets for each research area.

The Draft Roadmap aims to guide DOE efforts to meet the Plastics Innovation Challenge goals. The purpose of DOE’s RFI on the Draft Roadmap, therefore, is to solicit feedback from stakeholders to ensure the road toward the Plastics Innovation Challenge 2030 goals is clear and well positioned. Responses to the RFI are due to DOE by March 1, 2021.


 

By Lynn L. Bergeson

On October 15, 2020, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced the availability of over $27 million in funding for 12 projects supporting research and development (R&D) efforts toward advanced plastics recycling technologies and new recyclable plastics. These efforts are part of DOE’s Plastics Innovation Challenge, which aims to improve existing recycling processes that break plastics down into chemical building blocks that can be used to make new products. The 12 projects selected will address highly recyclable or biodegradable plastics, novel methods for deconstructing and upcycling existing plastics, and collaborations to tackle challenges in plastic waste.


 
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