Thursday, March 14, 2019 - 10:38am
Alan Flurry

Rethinking the recycling challenge is the focus of a new grant to UGA researchers from the Walmart Foundation:

An $800,000 grant from the Walmart Foundation to the University of Georgia New Materials Institute will help researchers understand how multilayer plastic packaging biodegrades and also help manufacturers in their attempts to design and select more sustainable materials. The research funded by the grant will seek to yield both upstream and downstream solutions aimed at reducing the buildup of plastic packaging in the environment.

“The grant will help us examine how the selection of materials for flexible packaging influences the biodegradability of that plastic in different environments, and also how the unique microbes that exist in these environments influence the biodegradation process,” said Jason Locklin, director of the New Materials Institute and a principal investigator on the grant. “Our data will be used to propose new and logical standards to help find ways to manage packaging waste that is presently being thrown away or blown away.”

Multilayer packaging protects nearly half of the food produced from spoiling before it can be eaten. This complex packaging is also extremely difficult material to recover and recycle, said Locklin. Currently, when two or more types of plastic are bound together to create this flexible packaging, the composite film either does not biodegrade or it biodegrades at a rate too slow to meet certification requirements that allow the manufacturer to claim its film will biodegrade; these requirements vary by country.

The question of 'how do we recycle more' has to become 'how can we reduce the need to recycle?' Locklin and colleagues will take these questions down to the fundamental necessities of packaging vs. freshness and safety to better inform industry about how to move forward. As the plastic (and its planetary effects) piles up, opportunities to shift public awareness and change industry practice must work in concert. Our faculty and students have fully joined this effort and support like the new grant is following their lead.