Aaron Hall, Chris DelRe, Ivan Jayapurna, and Ting Xu Intropic Materials Oakland, CA

Winner of $25,000

Despite efforts to sort and recycle, less than 9% of plastic gets recycled in the U.S. and most ends up in landfill or the environment. Approximately 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced and 6.3 billion metric tons have become waste. But we need plastic packages — they keep food safe, medical equipment sterile, and are integral for so much of our modern way of life.

Most biodegradable plastics take months to break down and when they finally do, they form microplastics — tiny bits of plastic that can end up in oceans and animals’ bodies including our own. While recycling it all would be preferable, the reality is that there isn’t enough infrastructure, it’s expensive to build, and the economics of recycling are not that attractive.

Compostable plastics have entered the market — estimated to be a $215 billion market by 2027 — but these products still need rare industrial composting to properly break down. Further, since composters need to degrade quickly, the usable designs tend to be limited to thin bags or cups; otherwise, they hold up the line and start costing the composters money.

With this new technology, trace amounts of enzymes are embedded into the plastics during manufacturing. Once triggered, the enzyme-embedded plastics self-destruct, completely degrading and eliminating microplastics in days — not months or years. This process is activated with accessible conditions like compost or simple hot water baths. It is scalable, compatible with commercially relevant thermal processing, and can be engineered to work with a variety of plastics.

Since these products degrade from the inside out, a much wider range of thick, heavy-duty, or rigid product designs are accessible. Further, should the monomers be recaptured, they can be chemically recycled back into new plastics.

Developing a very affordable and easily compostable plastic film could incentivize produce manufacturers to package fresh fruits and vegetables with compostable plastic instead of single-use plastic wrap and as a result, save organic waste facilities the extra expense of investing in expensive plastic-depackaging machines.

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This article first appeared in the November, 2021 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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