Project Is Supported by $2.7 Million from the Federal Government, Industry and Academia

Asst. Prof. Amir Ameli with graduate students and postdoc
From left: Plastics Engineering Asst. Prof. Amir Ameli with graduate students Milad Azami, Nikith Lalwani and Emmanuel Akubueze, and postdoctoral researcher Atul Maurya in the lab.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

A team of researchers led by Plastics Engineering Asst. Prof. Aboutaleb (Amir) Ameli was awarded $2.7 million to develop technologies for recovering plastics and natural fibers from mixed, nonrecyclable solid waste that would otherwise go to landfills. 
The recovered materials could then be converted to high-strength, lightweight fiber-reinforced polymer composites for use in building construction and landscaping, as well as in automotive, marine, sports, electronics, medical and aerospace applications.
“Our project proposes a holistic approach to the recovery and reuse of flexible plastics and natural fibers that includes sorting, innovative dry and wet separation and decontamination methods, compounding, and product manufacturing evaluation and optimization,” Ameli says.
According to Ameli, flexible plastics comprise about 17.5% of all plastic materials that go to the waste stream. He says that in 2018, about 32.4 million metric tons of plastics ended up as nonrecyclable municipal solid waste in the U.S., of which 5.7 million metric tons were flexible plastic waste that got dumped in landfills. 
“If only 20% of this waste stream can be recovered and used as secondary feedstock, or raw material, it will help reduce the country’s carbon dioxide emission by about 1.5 million metric tons,” he says.
Landfill waste
According to Ameli, in 2018 about 32.4 million metric tons of plastics ended up as nonrecyclable municipal solid waste in the U.S., of which 5.7 million metric tons were flexible plastic waste that got dumped in landfills.
The UML research team also includes Plastics Engineering Prof. Meg Sobkowicz-Kline and Asst. Prof. Davide Masato as co-principal investigators, as well as Ph.D. students Emmanuel Akubueze and Nicholas Bowen. External collaborators include the Idaho National Laboratory, Washington State University, Auburn University, DTG Recycle Group, Remacol Inc., Coperion Corp., Barnes Group and Sirmax. 
“Our work is unique in that we are proposing to recover both plastics as well as natural fibers from the same waste stream and incorporate the fibers as reinforcement into the plastics to compensate for the performance loss of the recycled plastics. If successful, we will not only increase the amount of recycled materials recovered from mixed waste but also contribute to enhancing the product’s performance and sustainability,” says Ameli.
He adds: “The natural fibers found in the mixed waste are mainly from paper, paperboards, cardboards and paper-based packages which are made of plant-based fibers usually derived from trees.”
Ameli notes that the United States generates more plastic waste per capita than any other country in the world.
“For instance, in 2016, the U.S. produced a total of 42 million metric tons of plastics – that is, 286 pounds per person, which is about 12.5 ounces per day per person,” he says.
Funding for the two-year project includes a $1.35 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s REMADE Institute as well as $400,000 in cost share from the companies. The three university partners will provide the rest of the funding.
The REMADE Institute, which stands for Reducing Embodied Energy and Decreasing Emission, is one of DOE’s Clean Energy Manufacturing Innovation Institutes and is a part of the Manufacturing USA network. Is goal is to drive down the cost of technologies that are essential to reuse, recycle and remanufacture materials and achieve a circular economy in U.S. manufacturing.