In today’s fast-paced world, convenience often comes packaged in plastic, from shopping bags to food containers, not to mention the seemingly endless supply of plastic water bottles. This useful, lightweight, low-cost material is an undeniable part of our daily lives, but it comes at a staggering cost to the environment. A new interdisciplinary research project underway at the University of Houston, funded by a $4 million grant from The Welch Foundation’s new Catalyst for Discovery Program, aims to develop innovative chemical processes to transform plastic waste into useful materials.

Houston, home to the largest concentration of petrochemical and plastics manufacturing facilities in the world, uniquely positions UH – a premier research institution – to explore innovative recycling/upcycling technologies to help the world achieve sustainability goals and establish a circular plastics economy. “More than 60% of plastics produced in the U.S. are polyolefins, such as polyethylene and polypropylene, which are extremely slow to biodegrade,” said Megan Robertson, project director and professor of chemical engineering at UH’s Cullen College of Engineering. “We are creating new ways to reuse and recycle that waste to make useful products and materials out of it.”

According to the World Economic Forum, the United States only recycled about 6% of the 40 million tons of plastic waste it generated in 2021. Around the world, about 400 million tons of plastic waste is produced each year. Much of it ends up in landfills, oceans and natural habitats, negatively impacting the environment, human health and wildlife. “We’re tackling a complex problem that needs a diverse team with a wide range of expertise in polymer synthesis, polymer physics and materials science,” said Olafs Daugulis, the Robert A. Welch Chair of Chemistry at UH. “The chemists on the team will lead the development of unique polyolefins with new material properties and functions, while the chemical engineers will study their physical behavior and properties, such as strength and adhesion. This knowledge is crucial for creating new materials that can be recycled and reused more effectively.”

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Author: Rashda Khan, University of Houston
Image: University of Houston