Each year, more than 8 million tons of plastics, ranging from newly dumped containers to broken down microparticles, enter the ocean, forming large “garbage patches,” according to the nonprofit Plastic Oceans Foundation.
“It all either goes to the landfill or it floats around in the environment and it doesn’t degrade,” said Eric Beckman, Distinguished Service Professor and co-director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation. “It’s a major issue when you start looking at the numbers because they are so large, and plastics have been making their way to the seas for almost a century.”
One solution to this growing crisis is to prevent plastic from becoming waste to begin with — and researchers from Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering aim to do just that as the only university team to win the international Circular Materials Challenge.
Beckman, along with Assistant Professor Susan Fullerton and Associate Professor Sachin Velankar, is looking to create a material that can replace types of plastic packaging that can’t be recycled due to their use of various layers of materials that can’t be separated.
The team, all from the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, was recently recognized at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, where Beckman accepted a $200,000 prize from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and tech accelerator NineSigma for the game-changing idea.
“It’s both really cool and really intimidating,” said Beckman, reflecting on the team being the only academia-related winners in Davos. “But they really liked our concept because it addressed what they saw as a crucial need. Since the invention of the first synthetic polymer in 1907, plastic has become an extremely versatile, economical and dynamic product that isn’t just going to disappear overnight. So, we need to take a 21st-century approach to make it a more sustainable product.”