A University of Houston research project, bolstered by a substantial $4 million grant from The Welch Foundation’s Catalyst for Discovery Program, aims to transform plastic waste management.
The project, led by Megan Robertson, a professor of chemical engineering, recognizes the challenge posed by the slow degradation of polyolefins, constituting over 60% of U.S. plastic production. In 2021, the United States managed to recycle just 6% of its 40 million tons of plastic waste, according to Sept. 14 press release on the university’s website. Globally, 400 million tons of plastic waste are generated annually, causing environmental harm.
The research team, comprising experts in polymer synthesis, physics and materials science, aims to address this issue via a three-pronged approach: value-added recycling, upcycling plastics into durable thermoset materials and enabling circular reuse. Key to their strategy is the development of modular "compatibilizers" to facilitate the blending of different plastic waste types, streamlining recycling.
Furthermore, the researchers are also introducing chemical groups into the polymers to accelerate degradation, enabling efficient deconstruction and reconstruction of polymers from degraded plastics.
The Welch Foundation, a source of private funding for chemical research, seeks to support fundamental research that addresses significant global challenges. The University of Houston has received two of the four inaugural Catalyst grants, emphasizing its commitment to addressing critical issues through research, innovation and service.