As the planet faces the pressing challenge of reducing plastic waste in the environment, new strategies for managing plastic waste are urgently needed. One of the biggest roadblocks to addressing the plastic waste crisis is the use of thermosets and rubbers — a class of non-recyclable plastics widely used in infrastructure, automobiles, planes, adhesives, 3D printing and chemical industries.

Dr. Elisabeth Prince, assistant professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, is working to address this challenge by creating more degradable and recyclable plastics. Her disruptive research in advanced materials has the potential to have a huge impact on sustainability and environmental remediation and supports Canada’s ambitious goal of achieving zero plastic waste by 2030.

Elisabeth Prince smiles while wearing a grey jack and blue blouse In recognition of these efforts, the Council of Ontario Universities announced that Prince has been awarded the John C. Polanyi Prize. The award is presented to an individual or team whose research has led to outstanding advances in the field of natural sciences or engineering.

“I’m honoured to win this award. Many scientists that inspired me received this award early in their careers and went on to do great things, so it means a lot to be recognized as having that potential,” Prince says.

Prince explains that thermosets and rubbers have permanent bonds that prevent them from melting when heated. As a result, these materials can’t be recycled in traditional recycling processes since most recycling processes are thermally driven and involve heating, melting and remolding of plastics into new materials. Consequently, thermosets and rubbers accumulate in landfills and oceans.

As director of the Prince Polymer lab in the Department of Chemical Engineering, Prince aims to make thermosets, plastics and rubbers amenable to traditional recycling processes. She is currently investigating ways to make it possible to melt and remold thermostats and rubbers at high temperatures, without compromising their useful properties.

Her research has identified a fundamental issue with the way many chemists try to deal with this type of plastic waste. “They do not leverage the widespread infrastructure for thermomechanical recycling when designing new recycling processes or novel recyclable plastics. The plastic waste crisis is an exponentially increasing crisis and humanity doesn’t have the luxury of time to rebuild infrastructure,” she says.

In her proposed solution, Prince’s research group is making minor tweaks to the formulation of thermosets and rubbers to make these materials easily recyclable within the existing infrastructure.

The versatile approach that they are developing has the potential to allow a wide range of non-recyclable materials, including rubber tires, epoxy coatings, elastic bands, and more, to be recycled using existing infrastructure contributing toward the creation of a circular economy.