DOE-funded partnership aims to make single-use plastic packaging endlessly recyclable

Feb. 16, 2022

The Department of Energy has granted $2 million over three years to Braskem America, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and Princeton University to develop plastic that can be recycled perpetually, reducing waste and pollution from single-use plastics.

This private-public effort is among seven projects supported by $13.4 million in DOE funding to reduce single-use plastics' carbon emissions and improve their recyclability.   

"Plastic packaging, which accounts for the majority of littered material, is currently impossible to recycle because it is made of multiple layers of material that cannot be separated," said Damien Guironnet, an expert in polymer chemistry at Illinois. "Our approach is to create a one-layer plastic that would achieve the properties of current multilayer packaging material—to finally make plastic packaging recyclable."

The team will focus their effort on redesigning polyethylene (PE) packaging material to produce plastic packaging that can be recycled an infinite number of times or safely degrade in the environment. PE is used to create the majority of single-use plastic objects. In fact, more PE is produced annually by volume than any other plastic. The perks of PE are its low cost and mechanical strength.

But PE packaging uses extra layers to keep oxygen out, making the ensemble unrecyclable. The team is reimagining how to increase the oxygen barrier of polyethylene in order to create packaging that can be recycled.

"We'll engineer the molecular structure to create a single-material plastic and achieve what can only be achieved today by multiple materials," said Richard Register, Princeton’s Eugene Higgins Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering. "The benefits are two-fold: reducing manufacturing complexity and enabling mechanical recycling of materials that today accumulate in landfills."

Beyond the design of a new recyclable packaging material, the team will construct their material using Braskem’s unique bio-polyethylene platform, a sustainable source of PE derived from biochemicals that degrade safely in the environment.