Advancing solutions for a circular economy

Industry partnerships in applied research

As the first research student hired in 2020 to work on the Plastics Research in Action (PRIA) initiative, Patric McGlashan, now a microplastics technologist with the project, can attest to the tangible progress made in the past four years in advancing solutions for the circular economy – from roads paved with hard-to-recycle materials, to luxury flooring that has potential to be a game-changer. Patric hosted the fourth annual PRIA update to a live and streaming audience Nov. 21 at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT).

Watch the full update

PRIA is a $10 million, ten-year applied research partnership between Heartland Polymers and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) to enable practical solutions for reducing and re-using plastic waste.

“Everyone attending today is familiar with the fact that making a transition into a circular economy is no easy feat. PRIA takes initiative in applied research by identifying opportunities with tangible solutions for society to reuse and recycle plastic waste with visions of a cleaner environment and a thriving plastic circular economy,” said Patric, today a research technician and assistant within the Clean Technologies team at NAIT.

Lorraine Royer, general manager of government, stakeholder and Indigenous relations with Inter Pipeline (Heartland Polymers’ parent company), opened the annual update by reaffirming IPL and Heartland Polymers’ commitment to finding innovative ways to re-use plastics after their useful life.

“Being a safe, responsible operator and producer of quality plastic is something that Heartland Polymers is very proud of. We consider it important to contribute to solutions on plastic waste while keeping this vital product a part of our economy and part of our solutions to a wide range of human needs,” she said.

Luxury polypropylene flooring

NAIT industrial surface chemist Kelsey Deutsch updated on the development of luxury polypropylene flooring made from recycled materials, as well as a project to utilize post-consumer plastics for concrete framework applications. The research team is working in collaboration with PolyCo (also a customer of Heartland Polymers) to develop luxury flooring tiles based on a polypropylene that contains recycled content.

“We looked at the evaluation of the mechanical and thermal properties of produced tiles without recycled content as a benchmark test and with recycled content for the evaluation of the effect of the introduction of post-consumer materials,” Kelsey said.

The team worked with PolyCo to test over 22 different formulations to date, with more than 12 of these formulations containing recycled content. Materials were tested for mechanical properties and thermal properties. All of these properties are important for processing and for the end application in the flooring tiles that PolyCo plans to commercialize by 2026.

Genaro Gelves, material scientist with PolyCo, explained that Canada typically imports this type of flooring: “All that waste will go to our landfills. So, developing an alternative to be able to manufacture, add value to our local materials, and bring a product to market that can be circular is a big, green, impactful project.”

Chris Toller, engineering manager with PolyCo, applauded the collaboration as an example of finding solutions close to home.

“We’re really excited that we’re trying to make a Canadian-made product and, really, an Alberta-made product. Part of this whole business model is that our raw materials are right here in Alberta, leveraging the Heartland Petrochemical Complex.”
Chris Toller, engineering manager with PolyCo

Kelsey also provided an update on the development of post-consumer plastics for building material development. This project is in collaboration with [Re] Waste and Clark Builders, and the purpose is to identify an optimum composition of recycled plastic materials to use as sheets for the application of concrete formwork in the construction industry.

The asphalt project

In the last PRIA update the team shared exciting progress on a project aimed at testing, validating and demonstrating the viability of blending post-consumer plastics with asphalt for Alberta’s cold climate. Four trial sites were constructed with the modified plastic hot mix asphalt surfacing in 2021-22, including a control section with a conventional hot mix asphalt. The test asphalt has been laid on internal access roads within the Heartland Petrochemical Complex facilities, within Sturgeon and Strathcona counties, and two sections within the Alexander First Nation.

Adetoyese Oyedun, senior project manager with NAIT, provided positive updates on the results of monitoring and evaluation at the test sites.

“From our testing done so far last year and this year, there are no early pavement failures or extreme severity distress evident on any of the sites,” he explained.

The project runs for one more year, and by the final update, the team expects to have an informed conclusion on the Asphalt Project.

Researching microplastics in fresh water

Jeremiah Bryksa, applied chemist with the Clean Technologies Team at NAIT, provided updates on one of PRIA’s high-profile initiatives focused on analysis of microplastics in fresh water, specifically, the North Saskatchewan River. The purpose of the study is to provide an accurate and reliable baseline quantitation of microplastics in fresh water. The research team adapted and applied standardized methodology to accurately sample, extract, and analyze microplastics from the river, with 12 unique sites spanning 110 kilometres in the Edmonton Municipal Region.

“In studying these locations, year after year, we can get an idea of microplastic concentrations and how they change over time,” Jeremiah explained.

PRIA researchers testing the Fort Saskatchewan river

A team at industry partner Dow analyzes samples using state-of-the-art equipment called the quantum cascade laser direct chemical imaging system – or LDIR. “This can accurately identify microplastics and then report us back the plastic type, the counts, and as well particle size. Combine this technology with Dow’s extremely skilled chemical analysts, and we have a very powerful measurement technique,” Jeremiah said.

The team’s pioneering work to establish methods to collect, analyze and quantify particles has gained attention in the research community.

“We’re getting a lot of traction with the work that we’re doing here in PRIA across Canada and into America as well,” he said. “For example, this summer, we had Yukon government’s water quality specialist fly down to Edmonton with us and train with us on the river and learn how to sample for microplastics.”

NAIT student research assistant Danielle Charrois shared her experience working on the Microplastics Monitoring Project. “Microplastic contamination in the environment is an emerging science, and this job was a great opportunity to be a part of that research and see the industry partnerships and collaboration that make it possible,” she said.

The update concluded with a question-and-answer period where presenters were able to dive deeper into the projects under way. In-person attendees additionally had the opportunity to view demonstration of the PRIA microplastics research and see how the technology has evolved through the years in order to more efficiently collect and evaluate samples.

Learn more about the PRIA projects under way. Visit nait.ca/pria

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