University of Massachusetts Lowell researchers receive US$1.0M in grants to accelerate plastics recycling; projects include melt mastication for upcycling polyolefin films, and developing hands-on modules to transition toward circular economy

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LOWELL, Massachusetts , January 31, 2023 (press release) –

At least 85%, a staggering figure, of plastic waste generated in the U.S. went to landfills in 2021 while just 5 to 6% was recycled. Two UMass Lowell researchers want to reverse these statistics.

Plastics Engineering Professor Meg Sobkowicz-Kline and Assistant Teaching Professor Akshay Kokil are embarking on campaigns to redirect these recyclable materials with the help of a combined $1 million in research grants. Sobkowicz-Kline and Kokil were each awarded $500,000 grants – National Science Foundation and National Institute of Standards and Technology, respectively – at the close of 2022.

Sobkowicz-Kline won a two-year, $500,000 NSF award for her project, “Melt Mastication for Upcycling of Polyolefins,” which will help advance the development of a new manufacturing process to ease the recycling of plastic film packaging – the ubiquitous thin, flexible material used in grocery bags, zip-top storage bags, dry-cleaning bags among other applications.

She explained current plastic films cannot be recycled because they consist of multiple layers of different plastics and thus are challenging to collect, separate, clean and reprocess.

“While chemical recycling methods are rapidly evolving, these approaches require high energy input, and the materials’ intrinsic value is lost,” she said. “New concepts are needed to increase the recycling rate and reduce the amount of waste plastic films ending up in landfills, incinerators and the environment,” she says.

A team of UMass Lowell researchers, headed by Sobkowicz-Kline, is studying a new process to produce plastic film made of a single polymer, but retains the properties that make plastic packaging so attractive, including its low cost, light weight, toughness and effective barrier protection against oxygen and moisture to help maintain food quality and flavor. 

She added: “Our research has the potential to increase the plastics recycling rate, especially for films, while also maintaining the important benefits of flexible plastic packaging, including food safety, convenience and low carbon footprint.” 

Fellow UMass Lowell plastics engineering Professor Dave Kazmer is a co-principal investigator in the project, along with professors E. Bryan Coughlin and Alan Lesser of UMass Amherst.

Awarded a three-year, $500,000 NIST grant, Kokil’s research will support his ongoing effort to develop a future workforce to grow a circular economy for plastics. The focus will be on moving away from single-use plastics in favor of a “closed loop” system in which the lifetime of plastic materials is prolonged as they are used repeatedly, repaired and recycled. In this perspective, the materials are discarded only as a last resort.

“Making plastics more sustainable and transitioning them to a functioning circular economy has become all the more important, considering the scope of their use in our modern society,” said Kokil. His project, Plastics Adaptable for Circular Economy (PACE), aims to create, test and disseminate cross-disciplinary, hands-on modules about plastics sustainability and circularity. 

“These modules, developed by all plastics engineering faculty members, will help expand the knowledge base and improve critical thinking skills of the nation’s undergraduate and graduate students,” said Kokil. “With a technically knowledgeable workforce, people will be empowered to make prudent choices and systemic changes in the plastics industry, such that even in a market-driven condition, this important class of material can become truly sustainable.”

Kokil is among the scientists and engineers from five research institutions across the country who each received $500,000 in funding from NIST under its first Training for Improving Plastics Circularity Grant Program. In addition to UMass Lowell, the other awardees include Arizona State University, Pittsburg State University in Kansas, the University of Missouri-Kansas City and the University of Southern California.

The PACE project is co-led by members of the UMass Lowell plastics engineering department including Sobkowicz-Kline, Kazmer and Assistant Professor Davide Masato. Jill Lohmeier, UMass Lowell School of Education associate professor, will perform in-classroom learning outcome evaluations for PACE.

Media Contact

Nancy Cicco
University of Massachusetts Lowell
Nancy_Cicco@uml.edu
Office: 978-934-4944

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