Iowa State University consortium partners with industry to solve intractable waste problems

Keith Vorst, director of the Polymer and Food Protection Consortium, Iowa State University. 

AMES, Iowa — The Polymer and Food Protection Consortium at Iowa State University works with some of the largest companies in Iowa and around the world to help make their products safer and more sustainable.

“Industries are looking at us to solve big problems,” said Keith Vorst, director of the consortium and an associate professor in food science and human nutrition.

The consortium’s overarching mission is to create new uses for waste materials that would otherwise be landfilled. That includes single-use plastics and food and agricultural wastes as diverse as rice hulls, chaff from roasted coffee beans and corn cobs.

“Unfortunately, most of the things people think are being recycled are not,” Vorst said. “For example, only about 9% of the total plastic waste stream gets recycled. We want to close the loop by taking the waste people are putting in their blue bins, or semi-trucks or train cars, and actually get it recycled.”

The consortium does this by looking at every step in the recycling and manufacturing process, from materials formulation, waste stream separation and collection, wrapping and packaging, and all the related considerations, including sanitation and food safety, shelf-life extension and odor characterization and mitigation.

Vorst started the consortium in California and was recruited to come to Iowa State in 2014, where he started building a team that now includes Greg Curtzwiler, assistant professor of food science and human nutrition, and Shan Jiang, assistant professor in materials science and engineering, along with graduate students and post-doctoral researchers.

Headquartered at Iowa State’s BioCentury Research Farm west of Ames, the consortium is gaining widespread attention for its work to solve intractable problems. The team has been highlighted recently in “The New York Times” and the trade publication “Chemical and Engineering News,” as well as in scientific journals.

The team works with industries that manufacture everything from expanded polystyrene packaging peanuts (think foam takeout containers) to vending machine containers, pet foods to furniture. They are just completing a project with the Muscatine, Iowa-based firm, HNI, one of the world’s largest office furniture companies, to create a biobased foam sturdy enough for seat cushions. They also recently completed a commercial trial on a new, re-sealable, plant-based adhesive made from bladder pod oil with American Packaging in Story City, Iowa.

The consortium is starting to work with the City of Ames to move more landfill-bound single-use plastics back into new uses and to find other purposes for fly-ash from its incinerator. “In the process, we will be reducing landfill costs and the potential for environmental contamination, while creating economic value and providing jobs,” Vorst said.

Last year, the consortium won McDonald’s Global Food Safety Packaging Award for work with the company’s Anticipatory Issue Management team on sustainability efforts to reduce waste and use more recycled and safer, biobased packaging. The business’s goals include eliminating use of food wrappings contaminated with the “forever” chemical compounds known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, ubiquitous in synthetic goods and bioaccumulating in living tissues across the planet.  

A peer-reviewed article on the consortium’s PFAS work in the “Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management” by Curtzwiler, Vorst and others was recognized as the “Top Cited Article” for 2020-2021 by the scientific publisher Wiley.   

Curtzwiler emphasized the consortium focuses on practical, cost-effective applications. “Certainly, we do some fundamental research that may take years to be fully realized, but our specialty is looking for solutions that will work tomorrow or in the time-range of three to five years. We’re working with companies that want to make progress now.”

The consortium’s funding comes from its industrial partnerships, currently 18, along with significant in-kind contributions of equipment from partnering industries. Vorst and Curtzwiler have received support for related work from nonprofits and state and federal agencies, including the U.S.Department of Energy, the Department of Defense, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

The team is more than busy responding to businesses that want to show environmental leadership and reduce their carbon footprint, whether voluntarily or in response to regulation. The consortium is in such demand that staff have had to cap the businesses they can work with directly. Others will have to get in line.

Headshot of man with dark hair.
Greg Curtzwiler, assistant professor of food science and human nutrition, Iowa State University.