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Athens-Clarke County, University of Georgia seek 400 local residences for study on curbside pickup of food scraps

The Athens-Clarke County Solid Waste Department and the University of Georgia New Materials Institute are looking for up to 400 households in Athens to test their new Residential Compost Pilot Project, which will be deployed in February and end in early May.

Residents in the Normaltown and Boulevard communities are eligible to register for participation in the study, which tests a residential curbside food scrap collection program. In addition, multiple food scrap drop-off locations will service the collection zone for all residents. ACC will not assess additional collection fees to the homes that participate in the pilot project.

“More than one-fifth of all landfilled garbage is food waste, much of which is generated in our homes.”

Evan White, a co-investigator on the project team.

“More than one-fifth of all landfilled garbage is food waste, much of which is generated in our homes,” said Evan White, a co-investigator on the project team. “Only one-fifth of landfills in the U.S. currently collect methane for energy production. So, diverting food scraps to facilities that recycle these scraps into compost, along with other organic materials, is an easy way for families to reduce their carbon footprint. ACC is selecting single-family homes, which represent more than half of the U.S. population.” White serves as director of the UGA New Material Institute’s Bioseniatic SM Laboratory, which studies how materials degrade in various environments, like landfills, industrial composting sites and municipal wastewater treatment plants.

Methane is the primary gas produced from landfilled food waste. While it lives in Earth’s atmosphere for a shorter time than carbon dioxide, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that methane is 28 times more effective than carbon dioxideat trapping heat in the atmosphere. The International Energy Agency says methane is responsible for about 30% of the rise in global temperatures since the start of the industrial revolution.

“The ACC Solid Waste Department is excited to participate in this pilot project,” said Suki Janssen, department director. “Our hope is to craft a residential program for the Athens community with the lessons learned from this project.”

The company will temporarily provide participating homes with a metal wheely bin designed to be lifted—or “tipped”—by existing collection truck lifts, facilitating easy collection for haulers and familiar routine curbside pickup for homeowners. The company will service all home collection bins weekly during the study period.

In keeping with the pilot program’s focus on recycling, the company designed all the bins to have a recycling or composting end-of-life and to reduce odors and access by pests. The company selected metal as a material for the residential pickup bins to avoid generating microplastics during in-service use, which occurs with environmentally persistent plastic garbage bins as they degrade.  The company purchased the metal cans from U.S. steel manufacturers Behrns Manufacturing (www.behrens.com), located in Excelsior, Minnesota, and had them fabricated to adapt to ACC’s automated lift trucks by Dye Sheet Metal (http://www.dye-sheet-metal.com) of Bogart, Georgia.

In addition to the curbside collection program, the company will place several larger solar-powered autonomous composting bins at drop-off sites in the two communities, making them accessible to all residents. The company will position these solar-powered units, designed by faculty at the New Materials Institute, where curbside pickup is not possible. At the end of their service life, most of their mass (excluding electronics) can be composted, depositing their carbon into the composted soil.

“Our findings will help Athens and other cities understand the viability of such a program, the demand for organics recycling, and how to navigate the collection logistics,” said White.

The pilot program is part of a two-year study, funded by the Walmart Foundation, aimed at improving circular systems related to the collection, recovery and management of organics waste. ACC Solid Waste will manage this portion of the study, while the New Materials Institute team will analyze the collection data.

Other UGA members of the study team include Jason Locklin, director of the New Materials Institute, and head of the Department of Chemistry; Jenna Jambeck, the Georgia Athletic Association Distinguished Professor in Environmental Engineering and lead of the Circularity Informatics Lab; and Branson W. Ritchie, Distinguished Research Professor, director of technology development and implementation for the Institute, and co-director of the Infectious Diseases Laboratory.

To sign up for the program, visit www.accgov.com/composttrial. Registration for curbside service will end when 400 residences within the service area have committed to participate.

Writer/contact: kygilmor@uga.edu or emwhite@uga.edu.

Jambeck named Regents’ Professor

Jenna Jambeck
Jenna Jambeck, associate director of the UGA New Materials Institute, has been named a Regents’ Professor, which is the highest professorial recognition awarded by the Georgia Board of Regents.

Jenna Jambeck has been named a Regents’ Professor in recognition of the national and international reach of her work in environmental engineering. Regents’ professorships are bestowed by the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia and are the highest professorial recognition in the state’s system of public colleges and universities.

UGA New Materials Institute to conduct 5 CB2 projects in 2023

Researchers and students from the University of Georgia New Materials Institute will participate in five sustainably-related projects funded by the Center for Bioplastics and Biocomposites, or CB2, for 2023.

The projects were selected by CB2’s Industry Advisory Board at its fall meeting held in November in Atlanta. The IAB meets twice a year for updates on existing research projects and to develop new projects for future funding.

Continuing projects

In 2023, UGA NMI research teams will continue their involvement in two existing projects:

Logo for CB2

The Little-Known Nylon: Nylon 59 Properties — Principal Investigators:

Eric Cochran, the CB2 Site Director for Iowa State University, and the Mary Jane Skogen Hagenson & Randy L. Hagenson Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering within the College of Engineering;

and Jason Locklin, CB2 Site Director for UGA, and Director of the UGA NMI. Locklin is also a Distinguished Faculty Scholar in the College of Engineering, where he is a Professor of BioChemical Engineering. Additionally, he serves as a Professor in the Department of Chemistry within the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.

Investigation of the Marine Degradability of Polymers of Interest to IAB Members — Principal Investigators:

Branson W. Ritchie, Director of Technology Development & Implementation for the UGA NMI, a Distinguished Research Professor, and Director of the UGA Infectious Diseases Laboratory.

New projects

New projects involving UGA NMI teams in 2023 are:

Bio-based Coatings for High-Performance Flexible Paper Packaging Application — Principal Investigators:

Suraj Sharma, Professor of Textiles, Merchandising and Interiors in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences;

and Sudhagar Mani, Professor of Chemical, Materials, and Biomedical Engineering in the College of Engineering.

Water Barrier Mechanisms in Bio-based Polymers — Principal Investigators:

Andriy Voronov, Professor of Coatings and Polymeric Materials at North Dakota State University;

and Sergiy Minko, the Georgia Power Professor of Fiber and Polymer Science, Department of Textiles, Merchandising and Interiors, within the College of Family and Consumer Sciences; and, Professor in the Department of Chemistry within the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.

Utilizing Hemp Hurd. Improving Hemp Hurd Performance as Filler in Plastic Manufacturing — Principal Investigators:

Ali Amiri, Assistant Professor of Practice in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at NDSU;

Chad Ulven, a Professor and Interim Chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at NDSU;

Breeanna Urbanowicz, Assistant Professor, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, and a member of the Complex Carbohydrate Research Center;

and, Maria Peña, Associate Research Scientist, Complex Carbohydrate Research Center.

About CB2

CB2 is an Industry-University Cooperative Research Center and is funded, in part, through the National Science Foundation. Representatives from CB2’s industry partners comprise an Industry Advisory Board that meets twice a year to review progress on current projects and, to pitch and assess new proposals. IAB members share in the research and development costs, as well as in the intellectual property; additionally, IAB representatives work directly with university faculty, graduate students and undergraduate students to develop technologies that can be rapidly adopted by industry. The program provides hands-on training while ensuring funds and projects are focused on rapid development of tools needed by industry to further sustainability goals. Students and university researchers work under the mentorship of industry scientists and product developers from some of the biggest names in industry: AmazonFordJohn DeereADMKimberly-Clark3MBASFBoehringer IngelheimSherwin-WilliamsAkzoNobel, Danimer ScientificNatureWorksRWDC Industries, and Avery Dennison, among others. Projects are funded through IAB membership fees, with Center/Site support funding provided by the NSF. CB2’s four search sites are located at North Dakota State UniversityIowa State UniversityWashington State University, and the University of Georgia.

For more information about CB2, visit https://cb2center.org/home.

Increasing circularity for organic waste to reduce greenhouse gas emissions

Organic waste. (Getty Images)
Organic waste. (Getty Images)

Walmart Foundation grant to UGA New Materials Institute will yield scalable strategies

Improving the circular systems related to collection, recovery and management of organic waste will help local communities lower greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the accumulation of food-contaminated packaging in their landfills. There is a growing need for new strategies to strengthen management in this waste category, as more localities ban food waste from landfills and/or extend producer responsibility for waste management to manufacturers, particularly for packaging.

Walmart.org logo

Researchers at the University of Georgia’s New Materials Institute will help their hometown and five other U.S. communities improve organic-waste management practices through a 2-year project funded by a $1.2 million grant from the Walmart Foundation. The research will yield organic-waste management strategies that communities can adopt and scale, based on their population and resources. Organic waste includes food scraps and food-soiled packaging, as well as yard waste.

Diverting food waste from landfills to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions is a high priority for the U.S. government, but local communities tasked with managing this waste stream currently lack the infrastructure and strategies needed to make improvements. To elicit current practices and conditions, the team will first conduct surveys and interviews with stakeholders in waste management, restaurant and business communities, as well as residents from apartments and single-family homes. For granular solutions that can be modeled for a variety of community sizes, the team will partner with two towns in each of three population densities: 400,000 and up, about 100,000, and under 40,000.

Utilizing the Circularity Assessment Protocol (CAP), developed at the New Materials Institute, the team will gain insight into local tipping fees, the types of waste management technologies used in a community, their associated costs and their availability to consumers. The CAP will also yield data on the most commonly used products in communities, local recycling trends and other consumer behaviors related to waste management. This assessment helps identify what type of waste leaks into local environments and why, and facilitates development of strategies to minimize leakage.

“We will investigate the root causes of landfilled organics in these communities to identify the collection gaps. The data will also drive our design of organics-waste collection technologies to address the gaps we find and accelerate the diversion of this waste,” said Evan White, a co-principal investigator on the project and director of the Institute’s Bioseniatic Laboratory, which studies degradation in simulated environments.

The second part of their project will focus on deploying and testing these safe, sanitary organic-waste collection technologies—bins that vary in size, complexity and operation, based on local needs. The researchers will also conduct workshops to help educate people on composting and better waste-management practices.

In the U.S., more food waste is landfilled than any other material. It makes up more than 24% of the municipal solid waste stream and is the nation’s third-largest generator of methane gas, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. By diverting landfill-bound food waste to composting sites, individuals can curb their own carbon footprint.

Currently four states—Maine, Oregon, Massachusetts and California—have passed legislation aimed at diverting food waste from landfills in order to lower GHG emissions. Maine and Oregon passed extended producer responsibility laws for packaging in 2021, and at least six states are considering similar legislation for their 2022 sessions.

Other principal investigators on the project include Jenna Jambeck, the Georgia Athletic Association Distinguished Professor in Environmental Engineering and lead of the Circularity Informatics Lab in the New Materials Institute; Jason Locklin, director of the New Materials Institute, a Distinguished Faculty Scholar in the College of Engineering and professor of chemistry; and Branson W. Ritchie, a Distinguished Research Professor who is director of technology development and implementation for the institute and of the Infectious Diseases Laboratory.

Writer/Contact: Kat Yancey Gilmore, 706/542-6316, kygilmor@uga.edu

PHA-based microbeads biologically degrade in wastewater treatment facilities


A diverse ecosystem of microinvertebrates and -fauna was witnessed by researchers at the UGA New Materials Institute during recent field and laboratory studies to evaluate the degradation of cosmetic microbeads made from a polyhydroxyalkanoate, or PHA, polymer developed at the Institute. In the upper-right corner of this video, you can see a reddish-colored worm, or nematode. Smaller organisms are seen moving elsewhere within the microbeads and wastewater. As these organisms consume the carbon-based material, their digestive and metabolic processes degrade the microbeads ultimately into CO2. Microbeads in this study degraded in 15 weeks in laboratory conditions, and 13 weeks in field conditions, resulting in no micronized plastic particles. This video (magnified at 4X) was captured on day 62 of the respirometry studies conducted in the Bioseniatic℠ Laboratory.

Technology developed by the UGA New Materials Institute

Manufacturers of single-use personal care items—like body washes, toothpastes, cosmetics and wipes—that have historically contained environmentally-persistent abrasives can utilize a new drop-in technology with confidence that the new materials will biologically degrade in wastewater conditions, resulting in no micronized plastics. In a first-of-its kind study, research from the University of Georgia New Materials Institute demonstrates that cosmetic microbeads made from a naturally derived polymer—polyhydroxyalkanoates, or PHAs—developed by researchers at the Institute reached complete biological degradation in 15 weeks or less in municipal wastewater.

The study is the first to cross-examine the biological degradation of PHA materials in both a field and laboratory setting. The microbeads reached 90% conversion to carbon dioxide after 15 weeks in controlled laboratory studies when compared to the cellulose control, indicating complete degradation of the microbead product within the time limit set for the study. In field tests, the microbeads degraded in 13 weeks.

“Numerous and diverse types of invertebrates and microfauna were observed inhabiting the microbead environment, suggesting the PHA microbeads supported healthy microbial biomass production as organisms consumed the microbeads,” said Evan White, first author on the study and director of the Institute’s Bioseniatic℠ Laboratory. “Most of the carbon from the microbead metabolized to CO2, and some was converted into the bodies of organisms in this vibrant ecosystem which can be seen in supporting microscopy videos.”

PHA microbeads day 6 of respirometry study.
A red nematode can be seen in the microscopic images captured on days 6 (above) and 37 (below) of laboratory studies. Nematodes were among a diverse ecosystem of microinvertebrates and -fauna witnessed by researchers at the UGA New Materials Institute during recent field and laboratory studies to evaluate the degradation of cosmetic microbeads made from a polyhydroxyalkanoate, or PHA, polymer developed at the Institute.
PHA microbeads day 37 of respirometry study.

Historically, personal care items made from environmentally-persistent materials have led to millions of micronized plastic particles escaping into the environment—daily—from wastewater reclamation facilities of varying age, technologies and filtration standards. This accumulation of plastic particles in sewage systems results in increased maintenance costs and system downtime, as well as costly capital improvements to wastewater infrastructure. Globally, the discharge of these micronized plastics into our streams and oceans has led to localized and regional bans on plastic microbeads, including in the United States in 2015.

In their study, the UGA-led research team said that PHA-based compostable materials are a better choice for manufacturers to use in products that are likely to end up in wastewater. Sewage sludge, said the authors, is naturally rich in microorganisms that have evolved to secrete enzymes that digest PHAs, a class of naturally derived polyesters.

PHA microbeads day 1 of respirometry study.
Digital microscopy of microbead biological degradation, from slide samples, under controlled respirometry. These images were taken on day 1 and day 63 of the studies. By day 63, the microbeads appear to have been reduced to a translucent shell.
PHA microbeads day 63 of respirometry study.

The researchers used field and laboratory settings to compare the degradation rates of PHA microbeads, PHA films and polylactide (PLA) films to cellulose controls. Field testing was conducted in a controlled setting at an operational wastewater reclamation facility in Athens, Georgia, with samples withdrawn over 13 weeks during the spring of 2019. Pulled samples were analyzed by Raman microscopy and thermogravimetric analysis/mass spectroscopy (TGA/MS), combined with differential scanning calorimetry (DSC) to determine biological degradation outcomes of the microbeads. To validate results from the field testing, activated sludge from this facility was used as inoculum for controlled respirometry studies in the Institute’s Bioseniatic℠ Laboratory.

These analytical methods are complementary, for a thorough review of the biological degradation of PHA materials, the authors noted. Respirometry provides a precise chemical signature of biological degradation of the microbeads to CO2; Raman microscopy measures PHA disappearance over time using spectroscopy; TGA/MS-DSC measures the polymer disappearance via a chemically specific thermal degradation product and correlative thermal transitions associated with PHA.

This is the first study to document biological degradation of PHAs in laboratory and field conditions using the final form of a product intended for commercial use. The microbeads tested are the first product tested to meet the Institute’s rigid Bioseniatic™ criteria, which includes respirometry to document microbial digestion; field degradation testing of the product; and absence of detectable micronized particles at the end of complete biological digestion in a respirometer, said White.

“Comparative Study of the Biological Degradation of Poly(3-Hydroxybutyrate-co-3-Hydroxyhexanoate) Microbeads in Municipal Wastewater in Environmental and Controlled Laboratory Conditions” was published by Environmental Science & Technology on Aug. 12, 2021. Co-authors on the study are Jessica Horn, Shunli Wang, Benjamin Crawford, Branson W. Ritchie, Daniel Carraway and Jason Locklin. RWDC Industries supplied the microbeads and PHA films. Funding for this work was provided by the RWDC Environmental Stewardship Foundation and the Walmart Foundation.

New composite material has potential for medical use

Professor Gajanan Bhat holds an elastic non woven material inside his lab at Riverbend Research Labs North.

University of Georgia researchers have developed a new material with properties ideal for medical products such as masks and bandages. It’s also better for the environment than the materials in current use.

Using nonwoven fabrics—fabrics produced by bonding fiber without weaving or knitting—the team led by Gajanan Bhat was able to make composite materials that are stretchable, breathable and absorbent, properties ideal for medical products. Incorporating cotton also makes the resulting material comfortable on the skin (an important factor in medical applications) and easier to compost, hence more sustainable compared to similar products currently in the market.

CB2 looks forward: Membership growth, expanded research scope, greater opportunity

Logo for CB2

Current project updates, seed concept pitches for 2022, and the future direction of the Center for Bioplastics and Biocomposites were all in focus as the Center, an Industry & University Cooperative Research Center funded by the National Science Foundation, held its virtual spring Industry Advisory Board meeting in May. The UGA New Materials Institute serves as one of four university research sites for CB2, along with Washington State University, Iowa State University, and North Dakota State University.

CB2 leadership told members they currently await approval on a grant proposal, submitted late fall to the NSF, to elevate all four sites and the Center to a Phase II research cooperative. A Phase II IUCRC requires a larger industry consortium, which will yield a wider range of projects for annual consideration, thereby increasing opportunities for researchers and students, along with the output of shared intellectual property benefitting IAB member companies. CB2 expects an answer from the NSF later this spring.

Experiential learning

For students, CB2 opens doors to research experiences, professional mentorships, and potentially future jobs, working in collaboration with scientists and product developers from some of the biggest names in industry: Amazon, Ford, John Deere, ADM, Kimberly-Clark, 3M, BASF, Boehringer Ingelheim, Sherwin-Williams, AkzoNobel,Danimer Scientific, NatureWorks, RWDC Industries, and Avery Dennison, among others. When funded as a Phase II IUCRC, CB2 will expand its scope to include recycling/circularity and end-of-life scenarios for materials—both research strengths at the UGA New Materials Institute. Industry’s need to resolve problems in recycling streams and to increase circularity in their material supply chains was reflected in some of the projects pitched by IAB members.

Overall, 14 seed concepts were pitched and will be further defined through the coming weeks by IAB members and researchers. The IAB will vote this fall on what projects to fund for 2022. The seed concepts range from exploring new materials for coatings, packaging and textiles; to characterizing the properties of new polymer sources to gain a better understanding of potential applications for these materials; to improving the quality of materials that enter recycling streams by reducing contamination, and through better screening of the materials in these streams.

UGA project updates

In updates on existing projects, UGA researchers again got good feedback from IAB members on the progress made thus far and the plans toward completion of their projects, which are:

“Unlocking the Potential of Bidegradable Xylan-based Polymer Materials,” led by Breanna Urbanowicz, an assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, and a member of the Complex Carbohydrate Research Center, who researches the structure and functionality of plant carbohydrate active enzymes. The first two years of this project were dedicated to exploring the potential of xylans, and later mannans, and the best routes to functionalize these polymers.  Now in year 3, the team is exploring catalysts, investigating functionalization for upstream and downstream uses, and continuing to build its saccharide library. Xylans and mannans are two of the most abundant polymers in nature and in agricultural waste streams.

“Investigating the Enzymatic Degradability of Glycolic-Urethane Linkages,” led by Evan White, an assistant research scientist and director of the New Material Institute’s Bioseniatic℠ Laboratory. This project, in its second year, aims to develop a rapid screening assay to evaluate materials for their ability to be deconstructed by enzymes at the end of their useful life, which may analyze hundreds of candidate materials compared to selective and time intensive in vitro testing such as respirometry or disintegration. White’s team has honed a test to provide reliable data within 8 hours. The team will validate the rapid screening assay with concomitant analyses such as respirometry, and aims to publish the analytical method to help expedite the discovery of new compostable materials.

“Life Cycle Assessment Tool for Sustainable Bio-based Coating Material Design,” led by Ke Li, an associate professor based in the College of Engineering. This is the first LCA tool to be developed for CB2’s IAB. To date, results from LCAs have been contradictory for the environmental benefit of bio-based plastics, making it difficult for manufacturers to thoroughly evaluate a proposed material’s overall sustainability and compare it to the overall life cycles of other materials. In the early months of his project, Li identified factors that have historically contributed to uncertainty in LCAs of bio-based materials, and identified various hot spots for different bio-based products.  In the months ahead, he will develop an approach to quantify the uncertainty and collect the data accordingly to reduce the uncertainty of LCA and develop a streamline tool for industries of bio-based plastics.

“Investigation of the Marine Degradability of Polymers of Interest to IAB Members,” led by Dr. Branson W. Ritchie, a Distinguished Research Professor who leads the UGA Infectious Diseases Laboratory and heads Technology Development and Implementation for the New Materials Institute. This project will start in mid-year 2021 and involves both respirometry and field testing.

The UGA New Materials Institute’s participation as a research site for CB2 is supported by NSF Award #1841319.

Study: PBG-PLA blends are less brittle, degrade faster in industrial composting

AFM image (3D height) of 15% PBG + 85% PLA, from UGA New Materials Institute.
AFM image (3D height) of 15% PBG + 85% PLA, courtesy of the Locklin Group at the UGA New Materials Institute.

Manufacturers that utilize polylactic acid (PLA) in products and packaging are well aware of the polymer’s drawbacks, including brittleness and slow degradation at end-of-life. Researchers the University of Georgia’s New Materials Institute have found a way to overcome these negatives of working with PLA, by blending the material with cost-effective poly(butylene glutarate) (PBG). The results of their new study offer manufacturers an alternative to utilizing petroleum-based additives that also improves upon the mechanical properties of PLA, and the PBG-PLA blends degrade at a faster rate in an industrial composting setting.