Friday, January 28, 2022

MSU professor recognized with prestigious National Science Foundation award

January 13, 2022
Headshot of Muhammad Rabnawaz. Courtesy of Muhammad Rabnawaz.
Headshot of Muhammad Rabnawaz. Courtesy of Muhammad Rabnawaz. —

MSU packaging professor and principal instigator of MSU’s Sustainable Materials Group Muhammad Rabnawaz was awarded a 2021 CAREER award to assist his work in simplifying plastic recycling. 

Rabnawaz received an award for his work in reducing plastic pollution by removing the complexities of plastic production and recycling. 

CAREER awards are presented by the National Science Foundation, or NSF. The awards support and recognize early-career faculty who have made significant advances in their department or organization and who can serve as academic role models in education and research. Recipients receive a federal grant for research and education activities for five consecutive years.

Around 500 faculty members a year are recognized with this prestigious award. 

“This award is going to help us to generate more sustainable solutions,” Rabnawaz said. “They want to give us resources to facilitate the vision that we have towards sustainable packaging. So, this award dollars certainly help us to hire students, to facilitate our research. Another thing is this NSF career award is very prestigious, so, it gives us a lot more credibility and recognition in the field.”

Since plastic packaging typically uses a wide variety of polymers, recycling plastic is a difficult task, if not impossible.

“The current practices what we do, particularly the plastic, they are not sustainable,” Rabnawaz said. 

Less than 10% of plastic waste is recycled in the United States — the other 90% typically finds itself in landfills or into the environment where it degrades into microplastics, polluting farmland, ecosystems and drinking water. 

“Because I'm part of the School of Packaging, I think it's my responsibility to contribute to address this problem,” Rabnawaz said.

He is addressing the problem of plastic from multiple angles such as discovering safer alternatives for problematic plastics and streamlining plastic by developing valuable and affordable polymers that are easy to recycle, but retain their durability, flexibility and value after recycling. 

Rabnawaz said that in addition to benefiting the environment, reforming plastic production and recycling will have a positive economic impact on the United States by creating a cheaper material for the manufacturing industry to utilize. 

He will also use the grant to train the next generation of plastic scientists by using the funds to bolster his lab’s outreach and education, as well as help public school educators develop teaching materials, create research opportunities and bring in experts to the School of Packaging so students can gain real world insight. 

“I just want to see how my research can contribute to society, how we can really solve the problem, the tangible problem,” Rabnawaz said. “So, as a researcher, I really feel excited about if my research can benefit the community and the environment.”

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