On November 13, 2021, UMass Dartmouth announced a new lab that will study the breakdown of microplastics in the world's oceans, as well as landfill and wastewater environments. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, more than 90% of plastics produced are never recycled, and more than 26 million tons of plastic are landfilled each year in the U.S. alone. In addition, a significant amount of the plastics that make their way into the environment are microplastics that last for hundreds of years.
To understand this crucial problem, the UMass Dartmouth Plastics Biodegradation Laboratory was created through a unique private-public partnership which included a state grant of $739,936 awarded by the Collaborative Research and Development Matching Grant program, an effort managed by the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative.
But before UMass Dartmouth sought any funding, a private industry partner with a deep history with the university and the issue of microplastics sparked the idea.
Mike Joyce, a 1985 graduate of UMass Dartmouth, stepped forward. Joyce is President and CEO of PrimaLoft, an advanced materials company that focuses on textile fibers and materials found in the insulation and fabrics used in more than 900 brands globally, including Patagonia, Canada Goose, Lululemon, New Balance, Adidas, Nike, and L.L. Bean.
PrimaLoft recently launched a new technology called PrimaLoft Bio that re-purposes plastic water bottles into recycled polyester. The polyester is then modified to allow micro-organisms that naturally occur in landfills and marine environments to accelerate the biodegradation process.
"Demand for this technology is rapidly expanding, but there are very few opportunities to test and validate these materials," said Mike Joyce. "As a member of the UMass Dartmouth College of Engineering Advisory Board, I am fully aware of the research work being done around sustainability and the blue economy. Partnering with UMass Dartmouth to create a new lab was a natural fit."
Joyce contacted Vice Chancellor for Research Ramprasad Balasubramanian and Dean of the College of Engineering and Interim Dean of the School for Marine Science & Technology Jean VanderGheynst to plan out how a lab could be created to meet the goals of PrimaLoft and UMass Dartmouth researchers.
"When Mike Joyce approached me about the need to test the biodegradability of PrimaLoft products, he had a much greater vision than merely a testing facility. He wanted students to be engaged in solving the plastics problem. He knew about our strengths in engineering and marine sciences and our commitment to educating the next generation of science and engineering leaders in our region," said Dean Jean VanderGheynst. "While this facility will address a major shortage in testing capacity for evaluating plastic biodegradability, it will also be a place where local K-12 students can learn about challenges of plastics in our environment and how to solve them using STEM skills."
A $450,000 investment from PrimaLoft supported Joyce's vision to fund this new initiative that will advance UMass Dartmouth's research in advanced materials and the Blue Economy while offering much-needed testing capabilities to PrimaLoft.
The biodegradability laboratory was designed to accommodate controlled temperature chambers and shakers for sample incubation, systems for accurate detection of low levels of biological activity associated with plastic biomineralization in marine and high-solids aerobic and anaerobic ecosystems. A computer-automated assay system will consist of three modular 80-bioreactor respirometry arrays and one 60-bioreactor array that includes bioreactors that accommodate appropriate sample volumes and gas collection and sensors for the measurement of gas emissions. In addition, the system design allows for additional modules to be added to increase throughput or to add testing of biodegradation under different environmental conditions.
The biodegradability laboratory will also feature the ability to observe individual pieces of plastic incubated under custom conditions, including varying lengths of time and natural material settings like water types. The lab components and key features have been designed in close collaboration and with critical feedback from PrimaLoft textiles engineers, chemical engineers, and environmental scientists.
"Projects like these take committed groups of individuals, institutions, and agencies to strategically and purposefully plan out ways to make impacts within our varied fields of study, our economy, and our natural and developed environments," said Vice Chancellor Ramprasad Balasubramanian. "Mike Joyce and PrimaLoft have been incredible partners so far, and I look forward to all the things we can accomplish with this new laboratory."
The new lab will be in the School for Marine Science and Technology (SMAST) to leverage existing facilities, including controlled seawater systems, analytical instrumentation, and water quality and microbiology expertise. Chancellor Professor Brian Howes and Michie Labrie, an SMAST graduate, will lead the initiative.
With the lab expected to open in Spring 2022, Joyce sees even more opportunities for the future.
"Selfishly, as a 1985 graduate, I wanted to see this happen for my university and the SouthCoast," said Joyce. "It is my hope that this lab becomes a nucleus of an expanding center of sustainable innovation and research in the region."