How To Solve the Mounting Problem of Plastic Waste? Focus on Its Chemical Roots

A researcher works with scientific UV light equipment in a lab.
NREL researcher Chen Wang works on a UV-light setup to study light-driven oxidation reactions to degrade commodity plastics, such as polystyrene and polyethylene. Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

Plastic pollution is a recognized global challenge. According to Our World in Data, since 1950, only 9% of the roughly 5.8 billion tons of plastic waste has been recycled. Experts estimate that there will be more plastic than fish by mass in the ocean by 2050.

To help make a dent in that immense plastic footprint, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) recently awarded National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) researchers more than $4 million to spur innovations in plastic. The funding adds to NREL’s already multi-million-dollar investment from DOE for leading BOTTLE—the Bio-Optimized Technologies to keep Thermoplastics out of Landfills and the Environment Consortium—which brings together research partners to discover new chemical upcycling strategies for today’s plastics and redesigning tomorrow’s plastics to be recyclable-by-design. BOTTLE is jointly funded by the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s Bioenergy Technologies Office and Advanced Manufacturing Office.

“To help mitigate the proliferation of plastics in the environment, we have to develop cost-effective and more efficient plastic recycling and upcycling methods,” said Adam Bratis, associate laboratory director for NREL’s Bioenergy Science and Technology research. “NREL is proud to be working with such a strong team of research partners to help address this global challenge.”

NREL will apply the new funding to explore solutions to two DOE topic areas. The first topic focuses on developing energy-efficient recycling technologies to deconstruct plastic waste into intermediates that can be upgraded into higher-value products. The second leverages the capabilities of BOTTLE to resolve challenges in plastic waste.

Novel Methods for Deconstructing and Upcycling Existing Plastic Waste

Upcycling used PET clothing and bottles with the VolCat process to create new PET

To demonstrate a scalable, economical process to recycle polyester, or PET (polyethylene terephthalate), researchers will explore and optimize IBM Research’s VolCat chemical recycling process of catalyzed depolymerization, product purification, and recovery. PET is commonly used in single-use beverage bottles, carpets, and clothing, some of which are difficult to recycle. By demonstrating an effective method for repurposing such low-quality plastic waste, the team may stimulate new enterprises for creating higher-value plastic products from cheap, readily available materials.  

Participants: IBM Research (Project Lead), NREL, Unifi Manufacturing, Under Armour, Milliken & Company, Husky, Oklahoma State University, and Niagara Beverages

Diverting foam waste from landfills through a hybrid chemical-biological upcycling process

To help divert plastic foam from the landfill and save energy in manufacturing, researchers will develop a process to convert waste polyurethane foam into high-quality polyols (key components for producing new furniture and bedding foams) and diamines (intermediates for nylon and high-performance plastics). The team’s hybrid process, which leverages both chemical and biological techniques to break down, purify, and upcycle waste polyurethane, could potentially increase reclamation rates of polyurethane foams, a stepping-stone for creating new, recyclable products with a much smaller energy footprint.

Participants: Battelle (Project Lead), NREL, Ginkgo Bioworks, Allonnia, Whirlpool, BASF, Faurecia, and Steelcase

BOTTLE Consortium Collaborations To Tackle Challenges in Plastic Waste

Unlocking the environmental and economic benefits of recycled carbon fiber

A team of university, industry, and NREL researchers aims to show both the environmental and economic value of recycling carbon fiber composites (CFCs), an industry still in its infancy in the United States. CFCs exhibit superior properties and can reduce the weight of systems conventionally designed with metal. The researchers are targeting two long-standing obstacles to an economic recycling process: recovering the fiber and polymer present in CFCs—carbon fiber and plastic—and engineering a solution that is significantly cheaper and more energy efficient than simply synthesizing CFCs from virgin carbon fiber feedstock. To do this, they are leveraging novel catalysts to break down commercial polymer resins to help reclaim carbon fibers; high-performance recyclable resins to aid the reclamation of both fiber and resin; and the Tailored Universal Formable Feedstock process to create high-performance CFC composites from highly aligned chopped fibers.

Participants: University of Delaware (Project Lead), NREL, Colorado State University, Arkema, and Axiom

Transforming plastic waste into new biodegradable, recyclable plastics with caprolactones

Aiming to understand how renewable polymers or plastics can be broken down into reusable chemicals or produce minimal waste, a four-institution team will develop a method for creating new, advanced plastics from alkyl-caprolactones. Due to their physical properties, alkyl-caprolactones have the unique ability to form high-performance plastics that are also recyclable and biodegradable. Researchers will use NREL’s existing reductive catalytic fractionation process to produce biomass or lignin-derived monomers, while researching the plastic recycling effort through catalytic and other polymer decomposition methods. The project has the potential to not only divert waste from the landfill, but also open doors for manufacturing original products using a novel class of polyurethanes and thermoplastic elastomers.

Participants: University of Minnesota-Twin Cities (Project Lead), NREL, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and BASF

Designing biodegradable, low-cost alternatives to conventional plastic food packaging

A team of researchers will design and test polymers made from agricultural waste that can be upgraded into reliable, recyclable, and biodegradable food packaging. Low-density polyethylene is commonly used in most food packaging today, but polyethylene (PE) films are neither easily recyclable nor biodegradable. The team will synthesize a variety of biomass-based polyesters that are designed using machine learning tools. They will compare the properties of the biomass-based polyesters to conventional packaging films made with PE. Then, the team will demonstrate the properties of the materials by producing, and ultimately recycling, new food and liquid packaging plastics.

Participants: University of Wisconsin-Madison (Project Lead), NREL, Colorado State University, University of Oklahoma, Pyran, Amcor, and Stora Enso

Learn more about NREL’s bioenergy research, or visit the BOTTLE Consortium website to discover more efforts to innovate plastic recycling, upcycling, and manufacturing technologies.

This story was re-published from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory website.

Webinar: PFAS: Deciphering a laboratory report

Mar 4, 2021, 11:00 am
Register here.

PFAS (per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances) have contaminated our local soils and water supplies. Taryn McKnight— PFAS Practice Leader from Eurofins will present and interpret PFAS lab reports during this lunch hour webinar:

  • Defining acronyms
  • Interpreting numerical values
  • Reviewing sampling objectives
  • Understanding lab quality assurance

Sponsored by the Wisconsin Section of the American Institute of Professional Geologists. For additional information, contact Christine Lilek ( or phone: 920-912-7304).

Capito asks White House to allow toxic chemicals rule to proceed

Read the full story at The Hill.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.) in a letter to the White House on Wednesday said the Biden administration has frozen a “significant” action on perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) drinking water standards with a recent executive order and asked the administration to “promptly” publish the rule in question.

In the letter to White House chief of staff Ron Klain, Capito said Klain’s Jan. 20 memo, which froze all new or pending rules until the administration can review them, affected the PFAS rule.

Power sector experts fight misinformation around Texas outages

Read the full story at Smart Cities Dive.

Operators often will prepare for peak loads based on historical data, but those forecasts can be less predictable under a changing climate.

Sustainable Chilled Water Systems in Pharmaceutical Plants

Read the full story at Chiller & Cooling Best Practices.

Chiller & Cooling Best Practices Magazine spoke with Tom Pagliuco, Executive Director Global Energy Engineering at AbbVie, Inc. about best practices for optimizing chilled water systems in today’s pharmaceutical operations.

Pagliuco has a wealth of experience in energy management having served in energy leadership roles at leading pharmaceutical companies such as Schering-Plough Corporation and Merck, as well as Allergan, which AbbVie recently acquired. He spearheaded numerous energy-initiatives that gained wide-spread recognition for several companies from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ENERGY STAR® program – including earning eleven ENERGY STAR Partner of the Year Sustained Excellence awards since 2009.  

Cyanobacteria could revolutionize plastic industry

Read the full story at Mirage News.

Cyanobacteria produce plastic naturally as a by-product of photosynthesis – and they do it in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way. Researchers at the University of Tübingen have now succeeded for the first time in modifying the bacteria’s metabolism to produce this natural plastic in quantities enabling it to be used industrially. This new plastic could come to compete with environmentally harmful petroleum-based plastics. The researchers, headed by Professor Karl Forchhammer of the Interfaculty Institute of Microbiology and Infection Medicine, recently presented their findings in several studies that appeared in the journals Microbial Cell Factories and PNAS.

At New York City’s biggest power plant, a switch to clean energy will help a neighborhood breathe easier

Read the full story in Popular Science.

When COVID-19 swept through New York City in the Spring of 2020, it did so unevenly. Hardest hit by far were communities of color, where the death rate was roughly double that of white neighborhoods. Overlapping constellations of reasons drove this—such areas house more essential workers, living in more crowded homes, with less access to health care—but among the more insidious was chronic exposure to air pollution. A nationwide study from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health found that COVID deaths increased by 8 percent with each additional microgram per cubic meter of fine particulate matter, the contaminant most closely linked to highways, truck traffic, and power plants. Given that the dirtiest and cleanest neighborhoods in New York City have an annual difference of about 4 micrograms per cubic meter, areas near heavy industries net a lot more deadly infections.

The residents of the Queensbridge Houses, the nation’s largest public housing project, worry this puts them at greater risk. “I’ve heard the conversation in the park over the last three months more than in the last five years,” says Suga Ray, a neighborhood activist and community builder. “People are talking about the plants over there,” he says of the Ravenswood Generating Station, whose iconic red-and-white-tipped smokestacks create an omnipresent frame for the skyline.

Queensbridge consists of 26 Y-shaped buildings in the shadow of the bridge that connects midtown Manhattan with the borough of Queens. Forty percent of its approximately 7,000 occupants live below the poverty line; 96 percent are nonwhite. Ravenswood, which can supply up to 20 percent of the city’s peak electricity needs, sits kitty-corner to these projects, and started generating power in 1963. The Queensbridge Houses opened in 1939. “That’s how you know it’s systemic,” Ray says. “They could have put it anywhere else. We create these structures in communities dominated by Black people.”

But in an American era defined by divisions and reckonings—both racial and environmental—Ravenswood is trying to clean up.

‘One Property at a Time’: A City Tries to Revive Without Gentrifying

Read the full story in the New York Times.

Neighborhoods in Newark are beginning to see a flurry of redevelopment, a decade after the city’s downtown gained vogue.

UK ‘centre of excellence’ targets food security and climate resilience: ‘This is the most critical issue facing the world today’

Read the full story at Food Navigator.

A new UK centre of excellence was opened this week by partners from the John Innes Centre and University of East Anglia (UEA) to develop projects that improve global food security.

Superfund Research meeting focuses on community, cutting-edge science

Read the full story at Environmental Factor.

Participants in the program’s annual event joined virtual poster sessions, scientific presentations, technology fairs, and resource sharing.