Plastics are all around us, from food packages to medical devices and countless other objects. Although they serve critical functions, they also create problems: Plastic production is resource-intensive and plastic waste can harm the environment.

With an issue as complex and far-reaching as plastic sustainability, the most promising solutions are not likely to involve just one person, company, or organization — they will be collaborative and synergistic. That’s why the Virginia Tech Macromolecules Innovation Institute hosted its first Polymer Sustainability Workshop in collaboration with regional plastics-related companies.

On Feb. 8, 90 participants joined the institute on the Blacksburg campus to share their knowledge and experience with plastic sustainability. The goal was to share insights and advice, brainstorm potential solutions to specific problems, and inspire future collaborations to build regional strength in sustainable materials.

The group included 33 industry professionals, who represented 15 companies and federal agencies, including Paul Honigfort, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration director of the Division of Food Contact Substances. These professionals have hands-on experience working in plastics manufacturing, design, technology, and more. Other participants were Virginia Tech faculty and students from a variety of departments and colleges, all with a shared interest in plastic sustainability research.

“It was a valuable experience to attend the workshop,” said Ann Norris, one of the industrial participants. “The speakers and topics spoke to the importance of sustainability relative to issues of recycling polymers as well as other very relevant topics. These issues pointed out how critical this problem is and needs to be addressed from the local community up to the global viewpoint for the long-term health of our planet.” Norris is a senior fellow of polymer science at Circ, a leading company in the field of apparel recycling, headquartered in Danville. Norris is also an alumna of the institute, having earned her Ph.D. from Virginia Tech.

Workshop participants listen to welcoming remarks from Randy Heflin (standing, at center), Virginia Tech senior associate vice president for research and innovation.
Workshop participants listen to welcoming remarks from Randy Heflin (standing, at center), Virginia Tech senior associate vice president for research and innovation.

Throughout the day-long workshop, industry professionals and Macromolecules Innovation Institute faculty gave presentations discussing their work in the area of plastics sustainability and graduate students presented posters describing their work. The day concluded with an open discussion, designed to allow participants to share thoughts and suggestions that had come up during the workshop proceedings.

“Our attendees’ contributions to this workshop exemplified the very same collaborative spirit that inspired the event to begin with,” said Bob Moore, the institute's director. “To have so many great minds in one room was not only a fantastic learning opportunity, but it was also a step in the right direction for plastics sustainability solutions that incorporate robust, interdisciplinary scientific and technical knowledge.”

This event was designed to build upon the momentum of the Feb. 7 Covestro Lecture, which was produced by the institute and featured esteemed scientist Gregg Beckham of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Beckham’s talk emphasized the potential for new advancements in plastics recycling and redesign and brought a variety of interested stakeholders to campus.

The workshop concluded with the recognition that there is a powerful collection of industrial and academic researchers and entrepreneurs focused on polymer sustainability within the Appalachian region who are ready to work together to meet the grand societal challenges of a sustainable future.

Several groups of people mingle and talk with each other in a large room with posters being displayed in the background.
Faculty, graduate students, and industry professionals network during a break in workshop programming.
Share this story