Scale-Up Design for Biodegradable Vanillin-Based Polymer Production; Plastic Pollution in the Pacific: An Analysis of the Consumer Behaviors and Recycling Infrastructure that Fail the Oceans

Richardson, Rebecca, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Anderson, Eric, EN-Chem Engr Dept, University of Virginia
Baritaud, Catherine, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

Since the advent of plastic production in the mid-twentieth century, the low cost-to-performance ratio of synthetic plastic has driven its widespread adoption. Inadequate waste management systems have allowed these petroleum-derived materials to proliferate in landfills and the natural environment. To combat the problematic accumulation of these plastic materials, a two-fold approach will be employed. First, the creation of sustainably-sourced, biodegradable substitutes may prevent harmful plastics from being manufactured to start. Second, the end-of-life management practices of traditional plastics can be analyzed and amended, such that larger quantities of these materials are recycled.

As national media sources intensify the spotlight on plastic pollution, the scientific community has expanded its efforts to innovate biologically-based materials for polymerization. Chemistry researchers at the University of Florida reported a novel biopolymer in 2010, documenting a pathway to convert sustainably-sourced vanillin monomer to a PET replacement polymer. Given the promise of this material, the objective of this technical report is to design a plant to mass-produce a bioplastic using the synthetic scheme verified by the research team. By transitioning the synthesis from a benchtop to a continuous industrial process and by addressing issues of energy efficiency, operational safety, and waste abatement, the design will allow for profitable production of the bioplastic in quantities required for commercial applications.

The final chemical plant design permits the production of 3.3 million kilograms of poly(dihydroferulic acid) (PHFA) annually. Industrial-grade acetic acid is produced as a co-product on the scale of 2.6 million kilograms per annum. At this throughput, the facility will occupy roughly 1% of the global PET market. Economic analysis indicates the PHFA plant generates an after-tax cash flow of $30 million. With an initial capital investment of $210 million, this revenue ensures a 12% internal rate of return. The financial viability demonstrated by the PHFA production scheme highlights the potential for the improved sustainability of plastic materials in the future.

The STS portion of this undergraduate thesis seeks to answer the following question: What are the social attitudes and organizational institutions that perpetuate the mishandling of plastic waste? A case study approach will enable comparative analysis of waste management systems on the neighborhood, city, and national levels. To distill the information into a valuable format, the key indicators of success and failure from each system will be mapped onto Arnold Pacey’s Triangle of Technology framework. Careful examination of this streamlined visual aid may yield actionable insights into best-practices for waste-management engineers and policymakers.

Investigations of the recycling systems in Germany, San Francisco, and the Western Riverside neighborhood of London suggest that successful waste-management systems of the future will employ organizational measures that encourage consumer recycling by decreasing expenditures of cost, energy, and time. The development of government-regulated curbside recycling programs is one proven method of easing the burden on consumers. Additionally, standards that place financial responsibility on plastic manufacturers are effective in both increasing consumer participation and decreasing total plastic production.

Although the solution to plastic pollution should be organizational in nature, innovations in the technical arena that improve the economic and logistical feasibility of those recycling systems required by new policies are not precluded. Furthermore, expansion of manufacturing for sustainable substitute materials alleviates stress on existing waste-management programs. Thus, simultaneous improvements of the institutional and technological facets of plastic management provide the greatest potential to save the environment.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Arnold Pacey's Triangle of Technology, Plastic, Bioplastic, Recycling

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering
Technical Advisor: Eric W. Anderson
STS Advisor: Catherine D. Baritaud
Technical Team Members: Christopher Brodie, Ethan Bush, Jillian Dane, Gavin Restifo

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