A Northwestern research group looks to lessen plastic's impact on the environment: BTN LiveBIG

A Northwestern research group looks to lessen plastic's impact on the environment: BTN LiveBIG

For every human on earth, roughly one hundred pounds of new plastics are produced every single year. Some is recycled, but the large majority of this is single-use plastic that winds up piled in landfills, collecting along roadsides, choking waterways and floating in mammoth gyres in our oceans.

The convenience and affordability of plastic products mean that this rapidly-growing problem is one that, for most people, is often put out of mind. Still it persists.

But, growing too are the ranks of those who refuse to turn away. From researchers to entrepreneurs, dedicated individuals are committing themselves to finding workable solutions for the planet.

At Northwestern University, researchers with the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN) are taking an interdisciplinary approach to solving some of the world’s great problems. ISEN draws upon the strengths of colleges and departments across campus, from physical and social sciences to law, business and communications, to drive discovery and further university leadership in a variety of fields.

Utilizing this interdisciplinary approach, a new program is taking aim at lessening the impact plastics and other resilient polymers are making within our environment, explains ISEN executive director Michael R. Wasielewski.

“We have a new program call PEPH, Plastics, Ecosystems and Public Health, which is designed to mitigate this problem at several levels,” says Wasielewski, the Clare Hamilton Hall Professor of Chemistry at Northwestern.

Chief among them is the creation of new approaches to designing plastics that keep in place the intended strength and resilience of the material, but that is either more rapidly biodegradable or more amenable to recycling.

With several billion pounds of highly-durable plastics making their way into global waterways every year, we’re reaching a point where soon, by weight, there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish. And, some of those plastics have an environmental shelf life of several centuries.



Linda Broadbelt is the Sarah Rebecca Roland Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Northwestern and the Associate Dean for Research at the McCormick School of Engineering. As a member of the PEPH team, she is looking at how next-generation plastics can be designed such that they are just as easily taken apart as they are put together.

“We like plastics because they are strong, resilient, and protect food and other aspects that we all desire,” says Broadbelt. “We’d like to be able to design in methods such that they can be brought back to their original, what are called monomers, the molecules that create plastics in the first place, so that there could be just a closed loop cycle that could allow us just to continually reuse plastics.”

To accelerate her work, Broadbelt’s team includes experts in computer modeling. Using sophisticated programs they explore various laboratory scenarios, often in a much quicker fashion than can be done in a purely experimental setting. That allows her team to enter into the lab equipped with suggestions that inform their design cycle.

John Torkelson, the Walter P. Murphy Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering and Materials Science Engineering at the McCormick School, is an expert on polymers, a group that includes most synthetic plastics. In particular he is interested in one very unique and noticeably unrecyclable polymer product: tires.

Of the 2 billion polymer tires produced globally every year, Torkelson says that 50 percent are burned for energy, 30 percent are turned into a low-grade rubber crumb used in asphalt and cheap flooring materials and 20 percent is sent to landfills or lost to the environment. It’s a lifecycle fraught with waste, pollution and missed opportunity.

“There’s a lot of economic value that’s lost,” says Torkelson. “If we don’t solve that problem, we’re going to end up with major issues in terms of landfills and we also end up with major issues in terms of economic vitality. By solving these problems, we can reduce the need for extracting natural gas and oil from the ground, which comes at certain environmental costs. And, if we do this appropriately in terms of recovering original properties, meaning the materials can actually be recycled for high value products, then it is actually good for the economy.”

What sets apart the research being undertaken at ISEN and the PEPH program is a decidedly integrated approach to problem-solving that encourages communication in order to inspire creative approaches.

“Northwestern’s work is unique because of its cross-disciplinary nature,” says Wasielewski. “We have people who are experts in water that routinely talk to people who are designing new plastic materials, for example. Northwestern provides a well-rounded team effort to attack this problem at all of its aspects.”

That goes beyond what is sometimes referred to as “hard science” as well. Wasielewski notes that it is not enough to simply solve a problem in a vacuum. Public communication, regulatory and governmental issues and economic factors all come to bear on if and in what way a solution may be feasibly implemented.

“At Northwestern, every project that we engage in has all of those other aspects in the forefront,” Wasielewski explains. “When we’re doing science and technology and looking for a solution, we bring in people from all those other disciplines to have a holistic approach to solving these problems for the good of society.

“This is part of our DNA, if you will, at Northwestern. This is the way that we do business. This is the way that we address problems. This is the way that we approach the serious problems that need to be solved in order to benefit the world of the future.”