Rethinking Plastic

Plastic, it’s very handy. It’s lightweight, corrosion-resistant, durable, and yet, it’s also hazardous to the environment.

This led to the workshop “Closing the Loop on the Plastics Dilemma”—hosted by the Chemical Sciences Roundtable in Washington, DC—which asked chemists, chemical engineers, and participants in related fields to reimagine how plastics are created, used, and managed.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicines shares what took place at the May 2019 workshop, including presentations and discussions, available now in the Proceedings in Brief. (more…)

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According to the Georgia Institute of Technology, crab shells and trees may soon replace the flexible plastic packaging used to keep food fresh. The innovative process involves spraying multiple layers of chitin from crab shells and cellulose from trees to form a flexible film similar to plastic packaging film. Once fully dried, the material is flexible, strong, transparent, and compostable.

Not only will these lifeforms become a source of sustainable and renewable wrapping, but they will also help improve food quality. Compared to conventional plastic packaging, the new technology offers a 67 percent reduction in oxygen permeability, allowing food to stay fresh even longer.


Carbon dioxideA team of researchers from the University of Toronto is looking to give wasted materials new value by developing a new catalyst that could help recycle carbon dioxide into plastic.

According to a new study, the researchers have successfully used a new technique to efficiently convert carbon dioxide to ethylene, which can then be processed to make polyethylene, the most common plastic used in making packaging, bottles, and toys.

By using a copper catalyst, the team was able to achieve the desired result of ethylene production. However, controlling the catalyst was one of the technological challenges the team had to overcome.


Researchers have developed an inexpensive and scalable technique that can change plastic’s molecular structure to help it cast off heat.

Advanced plastics could usher in lighter, cheaper, more energy-efficient product components, including those used in vehicles, LEDs, and computers—if only they were better at dissipating heat.

The concept can likely be adapted to a variety of other plastics. In preliminary tests, it made a polymer about as thermally conductive as glass—still far less so than metals or ceramics, but six times better at dissipating heat than the same polymer without the treatment.

“Plastics are replacing metals and ceramics in many places, but they’re such poor heat conductors that nobody even considers them for applications that require heat to be dissipated efficiently,” says Jinsang Kim, a materials science and engineering professor at the University of Michigan. “We’re working to change that by applying thermal engineering to plastics in a way that hasn’t been done before.”


PlasticResearchers have taken a step toward the development of renewable plastics – a promising transformation from current plastics made from oil. The biodegradable material is possible due to the creation of a new catalyst.

Over the past 50 years, the global production of plastic has grown tremendously. According to World Watch Institute, over 299 trillion tons of plastic were produced in 2013. Unfortunately, as plastic production increases, recycling rates lag. Of the 299 trillion tons of plastic produced, between 22 and 43 percent made its way to landfills around the world, thereby wasting resources and negatively impacting the environment.

Biodegradable plastics could provide a potential solution to this issue. Currently, researchers are working to make the plastics – produced completely from renewable resources – match the price and performance of their petroleum-based counterparts.


Plastic + Egg Whites = Bioplastics

After studying the antibacterial properties of bioplastics, researchers found that albumin looks to be the most promising.Image: Cal Powell/UGA

After studying the antibacterial properties of bioplastics, researchers found that albumin looks to be the most promising.
Image: Cal Powell/UGA

Since Leo Baekeland’s invention of Bakelite in 1907, plastic has undergone a lot of transformation. Now, plastic isn’t just used in toys and phones—it also has promising potential in medical applications.

Researchers from the University of Georgia are creating bioplastics from albumin—a protein found in eggs with significant antibacterial properties—to expand plastic’s potential into areas such as wound healing dressing, sutures, catheter tubes, and drug delivery.

“It was found that it had complete inhibition, as in no bacteria would grow on the plastic once applied,” said Alex Jones, a doctoral student at the University of Georgia. “The bacteria wouldn’t be able to live on it.”

The development detailed in this study is critical due the high percentage of hospital-acquired infections.