University of Pittsburgh

United States

Recyclable, flexible and durable packaging created through nano-engineering.

Circular Materials Challenge winner

Category 1: Make unrecyclable packaging recyclable

The University of Pittsburgh team applies nano-engineering to create a recyclable material that can replace complex multi-layered packaging that is unrecyclable. This mimics the way nature uses just a few molecular building blocks to create a huge variety of materials.

How does this innovation accelerate the transition to a circular economy?

The idea is to make food packaging (such as snack food bags and food pouches) from layers of a single material, polyethylene, which is easy to recycle. Each layer can be given different properties by changing its nano-scale structure, which when combined, create a much better material that can even be coloured without pigments. It aims to replace packaging made from layers of different materials, which are growing in popularity today but are very difficult to recycle. Since this innovation aims at accomplishing the task currently done by combining materials like PET, polyethylene and aluminium, but using only one, recyclable material, it combines the the best of two worlds.

What’s new?

The approach is to alter the nano-structure of polyethylene in ways that allows it to mimic the properties of the various layers (such as PET, EVOH, or even aluminium) in current laminate packaging while not changing the chemistry (it’s still polyethylene). So, when the material is collected, shredded, and melted, it reverts to simple molten polyethylene and can be reprocessed without difficult separation steps

3 questions for the team

Uni Of Pittsburgh Team

Dr. Eric Beckman

Bevier Distinguished Service Professor of Engineering in the Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh

  • What made you come up with this idea?

  • Over the past few years I had noted with interest that industries such as automobiles, home appliances, and even aluminum cans were transforming their business models from traditional products to services, where goods are designed to be recovered and reused. By contrast, the paradigm of the chemical industry has, for 150 years, been short lifetime and single use. I wondered whether one could transform a molecule from a product to service, with the most interesting applications of this (to me) being textiles and packaging. The question for each was how one could design these products to be inherently recoverable and reusable?

  • What is the aim of your innovation?

  • Packaging is a one of the toughest challenges if we want to create a circular economy (tens of million of tonnes of packaging waste goes to US landfills each year). We hope that our design can not only set a new standard for high-performing and recyclable plastics, but will stimulate people to think about other ways in which we can transform molecular products to services through good design.

  • What excites you the most about the New Plastics Economy Accelerator Programme?

  • Having a combination of a logistics solution and an in-store experience that eliminates plastic waste, we are excited to get together with like-minded individuals and organisations to shake up our existing production and consumption habits, which are long overdue for an update.