Newswise — NORMAN, OKLA. – Single-use plastic bags continue to pose a global environmental challenge, as their composition and form makes them difficult to recycle, and hundreds of years are required for them to degrade fully in the environment. While reusabable shopping bags offer an earth-friendly option, what if plastic bags could be recycled or placed in our composts?

Researchers from the University of Oklahoma Gallogly College of Engineering School of Chemical, Biological and Materials Engineering are collaborating on a project led by the University of Wisconsin-Madison to design recyclable biomass-based polyesters in hopes of providing a cost-efficient solution.

The $3.2 million project is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and also includes the National Renewable Energy Lab, Colorado State University, Pyran LLC, Amcor and StoraEnso as partners. The consortium has two decades of experience in developing catalytic pathways for production of diols and diacids from biomass.

The project objective is to design and test new biomass-based polyesters that have comparable thermal or mechanical properties to current polyolefin packaging film polymers and are also chemically recyclable and biodegradable. 

OU Gallogly College of Engineering Dean and CBME professor John Klier and OU lead principal investigator and CBME Director and professor Brian Grady bring their expertise in bio-based polymers to the team.

“What we are trying to do is to use this class of materials to make polymers with properties of a film, typically low-density polyethylene or a linear low-density polyethylene,” explained  Grady. “Our hope is to be able to convert polymers to monomers, which would allow us to make plastic bags that would biodegrade in several months in a composting facility.”

These specialized polyesters will provide advantages including recyclability, aquatic biodegradability, and competitive or improved optical and mechanical properties.