Advancing material innovation to address the polymer waste crisis

Bradley Olsen, professor of chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and principal investigator at the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) leads researchers, including Katharina Fransen, 2022 J-WAFS fellow, in the development of an expansive dataset to determine biodegradable polymers.

Bradley says, “Despite polymer waste being a known and significant contributor to the climate crisis, the study of polymer biodegradation has been limited to a small number of polymers because current biodegradation testing methods are time- and resource-intensive. This limited scope slows new material innovation, so we are working to open that up to a much broader portfolio of materials.”


Products made from polymers — ranging from plastic bags to clothing to cookware to electronics — provide many comforts and support today’s standard of living, but since they do not decompose easily, they pose long-term environmental challenges. Developing polymers, a large class of materials, with a more sustainable life cycle is a critical step in making progress toward a green economy and addressing this piece of the global climate change crisis. The development of biodegradable polymers, however, remains limited by current biodegradation testing methods.

To address this limitation, a team of MIT researchers led by Bradley D. Olsen, the Alexander and I. Michael Kasser (1960) Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, has developed an expansive biodegradation dataset to help determine whether or not a polymer is biodegradable.

Their findings were recently published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), a peer reviewed journal of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), in a paper titled "High-Throughput Experimentation for Discovery of Biodegradable Polyesters." The MIT team is led by Olsen and PhD candidates Katharina A. Fransen and Sarah H. M. Av-Ron, and also includes postdoc Dylan J. Walsh and undergraduate students Tess R. Buchanan, Dechen T. Rota, and Lana Van Note.

MIT News