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Sustainable plastics: the world’s future materials



Four members of the University of Minnesota’s Centre for Sustainable Polymers write about how making sustainable plastics is not just a pipedream.

Polymers are the giant molecules that make up plastics. These ubiquitous materials protect our foods, make our cars lighter and more efficient, and are in myriad household items.

Nearly all polymers are derived from fossil fuels, led by high-volume products such as polyethylene (PE), polystyrene (PS), and polyvinylchloride (PVC). In both their production and their disposal, these materials present inescapable environmental challenges that are costly to correct in the short-term and unsustainable in the long run.

Fortunately, the advent of a vibrant and growing bio-based chemical industry that does not rely on finite resources such as natural gas and oil as feedstocks provides a new driver for the invention of competitive and sustainable polymers, while simultaneously fuelling economic development and generating green chemistry jobs.

About 300m tons of plastic are produced globally each year, and only about 10% of that is recycled. Roughly 33% of plastic is designed for single use, and then is typically thrown away (e.g., most packaging materials).

Ironically, the very attributes that make plastic so desirable are the same things that make it so problematic. Plastic is inexpensive, lightweight, and durable, which makes it an ideal material for various industries (e.g., retail, packaging and manufacturing). However, because plastic is so desirable the volumes generated are huge, and because it is so durable it does not naturally erode in the environment on reasonable time scales.

Video: Plastics are a vital part of our lives, but they also are rife with adverse environmental impacts. In “Can We Make Plastics Sustainable?”, the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment and the Centre for Sustainable Polymers explore how we can enjoy the benefits of plastics and keep our planet healthy, too.

The accumulation of plastic waste over the last sixty years has culminated in an environmental crisis. One needs only walk a few yards along any of the Earth’s tens of thousands of miles of sandy beach to spot a fractured chunk of yesterday’s shiny new plastic creation.

Moreover, the petroleum market is notoriously volatile, and over the last decade as the price of petroleum has escalated, the cost of raw materials used in the production of polymers has also steadily risen. For example, from 1985-2007 the price of soybean oil in the US grew by just 50% while over the same time period the price of crude oil has risen 150%.

One strategy to address these problems is to use renewable resources to prepare polymeric materials with the same (or even better) properties as traditional plastics, but that will not carry the same environmental taxation associated with petrochemically derived plastics.

The Centre of Sustainable Polymers (CSP) at the University of Minnesota is pursuing this strategy.

The overarching goal of the CSP is to develop a comprehensive knowledge base that enables the efficient and economical conversion of natural and abundant molecules into tomorrow’s advanced polymeric materials. Such plastics are targeted to be compostable and biodegradable, ultimately alleviating the accumulation of plastic waste.

A recent study by the US Department of Agriculture estimated that renewable polymers could account for up to 20% of the global polymer market by 2025, so the future for these types of technology is close at hand.

CSP researchers are tackling the scientific challenges inherent in developing new, sustainable materials through multiple projects using a variety of approaches. For example, studies of the detailed chemical mechanisms by which biorenewable polymers are prepared are leading to the development of new, more efficient polymerisation catalysts.

New building blocks derived from plants for sustainable polymer synthesis are being developed and used to prepare complex polymer architectures that lead to useful properties. Thus, multiblock polymers built from natural starting materials are being pursued as thermoplastic elastomers and pressure sensitive adhesives.

Also, CSP researchers are preparing new vegetable oil-derived polyols that are key components of polyurethane (PU) foams. Polyurethane is one of the most versatile polymeric materials with regard to both processing methods and mechanical properties.

Based on the selection of reactants, the resulting PU can be a rigid material, a flexible elastic substance or even a viscoelastic gel. This wide range of achievable properties makes PUs an indispensable component in building construction, consumer products, transportation and medical devices.

The use of vegetable oil‐derived polyols in foam synthesis is not only desirable but also critical in reducing petroleum components in PU.

The CSP has adopted a multi-disciplinary basic research approach to developing, improving, and expanding bio-based polymers that is well-suited to the inherent challenges associated with innovation and development of these exciting new materials.

The centre has partnered with industry leaders to understand their needs and to seek guidance in research directions, and has also established collaborations with colleagues in the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs in order to foster relationships with legislative leaders and participate in policy decisions that may impact the direction of these industries.

Finally, we continue to reach out to the public in order to educate them about the importance of sustainable polymers as the world’s future materials.

Laura Seifert, Marc Hillmyer, Bill Tolman and Tom Hoye are all part of the University of Minnesota’s Centre for Sustainable Polymers.

Further reading:

Global food system crisis

The Great Recycle


Green Weddings Trend: Why 70% of Newlyweds Are Going Green



A couple of months ago, my best friend got married to her new husband. They are both very eco-conscious people, so they decided to have a unique twist on their wedding. They asked for the following:

  • They arranged a carpool with their friends.
  • They didn’t have any balloons. Instead they used umbrellas.
  • They used plant materials instead of plastic confetti.
  • My friend insisted her husband not purchase a diamond. In addition to being ecologically conscious, she didn’t like the idea of having a stone that was used in conflict zones.

My friends aren’t the only ones making these changes. In fact, nearly a quarter of all newlyweds are organizing green weddings.

Green Weddings Are Becoming the Norm

People are more concerned about green living than ever before. They are trying to incorporate environmental protectionist ideas into every facet of their lives, even the most intimate, such as marriage. A growing number of people are trying to have green weddings, which can make a big difference in reducing their carbon footprint.

How much of a difference can this make? Here are some statistics to bear in mind:

There are a number ofreasons that green weddings are becoming more important. Here are a few.

People Are More Worried About Environmental Preservation than Ever Before

Green living in general is becoming a greater concern for most people. Even younger conservatives are breaking from their older counterparts by insisting on fighting climate change. According to a poll from Pew Research earlier this year, 75% of Americans say that they are very concerned about protecting the environment. Having green weddings is a good way to act on this concern.

One of the biggest changes people are making is using recycled products for their green weddings. This is explained by the research from Pew:

“Overall, 32% of U.S. adults say they are bothered a lot by people throwing away things that could be recycled. Roughly six-in-ten Americans (61%) who say they always try to live in ways that protect the environment say it bothers them “a lot” when others throw away things that could be recycled. Among those who are less focused on environmental protection, only a quarter say it bothers them a lot when others don’t recycle. People who are environmentally conscious are also twice as likely as others to say that seeing someone incorrectly putting trash in recycling bins bothers them a lot (42% vs. 21%).”

Indifferent Politicians Are Driving them to Take More Initiative

Many politicians in power have been very hesitant to take action on climate change. Many of them have openly stated that it is a hoax. These politicians are forcing people to do what they can in their own lives to make a difference. Making small changes, such as hosting green weddings, is a great way to improve the environment without waiting for political momentum.

Cost and Simplicity

A couple of the biggest reasons that people want to host green weddings have nothing to do with their concern for the environment. Running green weddings is simply cheaper and simpler than having a massive, traditional one. One of the biggest changes is that they are buying green engagement rings from the best brands.

Green Weddings Are the Future

Green weddings have become very popular over the past few years. They will probably account for close to 90% of all marriages by 2025. People that are planning to get married should look into the benefits and plan accordingly.

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Green Tech Start-Ups: Are they the Future?



Endless innovations are occurring in green companies, reinventing the industries they belong to. Gradually, they are beginning to amass more success and popularity. Consequently, these factors serve as a good indicator for green technology businesses, and their development must begin somewhere.

Green tech start-ups boast a wide array of opportunities for the economy and environment, while boosting recruitment openings with valuable services. While the technology industry is littered with high revenues and competition, the green tech start-ups are the clear sign of a cleaner future.

Fulfilling a Genuine Need

Many tech companies will market themselves as the ultimate tech giants to shift stock and make profit. As they all vie for attention through warped corporate rhetoric, there is only one ethical winner; the start-up green tech company.

Some argue that mainstream tech businesses have grown far too big, branching out into other industries and standing between the consumer and practically everything they do. However, green tech start-ups go beyond the shallow ambitions of a company, answering a call to sincerely help the customer and climate in any way they can. Of course, this is an attractive business model, putting customers at ease as they contribute to a humanitarian cause that is genuine through and through.

After all, empathy is a striking trait to have in business, and green tech start-ups maintain this composure by their very nature and purpose.

Creating Opportunities

Despite the pursuits for clean energy still needing more awareness, green tech is an area that is ripe for contribution and expansion. There’s no need to copy another company or be a business of cheap knockoffs; green tech start-ups can add a new voice to the economy by being fresh, fearless and entrepreneurial.

Technology is at its most useful when it breaks new ground, an awe that eco-friendly innovations have by default in their operations. Of course, green tech start-ups have the chance to build on this foundation and create harmony instead of climate crisis. Ultimately, the tech advancements are what revolutionise clean energy as more than an activist niche, putting theory into practice.

Despite the US gradually becoming more disengaged with green technology, others such as China and Canada recognise the potential in green technology for creating jobs and growth in their respective economies. The slack of others spurs them on, which creates a constant influx of prospects for the green tech sector. Put simply, their services are always required, able to thrive from country to country.

A Fundamental Foresight

Mainstream technology can seem repetitive and dull, tinkering with what has come before rather than turning tech on its head. Since 2011, technology has been accused of stagnation, something which the internet and petty app services seem to disguise in short reaching ideas of creativity.

However, green tech start-ups aren’t just winging it, and operate with a roadmap of climate change in the years ahead to strategize accordingly. In other words, they aren’t simply looking to make a quick profit by sticking to a trend, but have the long-term future in mind. Consequently, the green tech start-up will be there from the very start, building up from the foundational level to only grow as more and more people inevitably go green.

They can additionally forecast their finances too, with the ability to access online platforms despite the differing levels of experience, keeping them in the loop. Consequently, with an eye for the future, green tech startups are the ones who will eventually usher in the new era.

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