Three interdisciplinary graduate student teams partnered with the commercial cleaning products company Method and a building professionals project team, The Oakland EcoBlock, to investigate safer alternatives for sunscreens, plastic packaging, and building roofing. Currently used UV absorbers and HALS (hindered amine light stabilizers) in sunscreens and in polymeric building membranes were examined and ways devised to reduce the accumulation of ocean plastic caused by discarded consumer products. The teams examined a range of bio-inspired strategies to address these challenges:
The Safer Sunscreens group identified naturally-sourced compounds such as colorless carotenoids, mycosporine-like amino acids, and vitamin E compounds, for use as potential alternatives to existing sunscreen compounds. These substances may serve as viable alternatives to the benzophenone compounds recently banned in the State of Hawaii. The team based its research on plant and microbial approaches to UV protection. The group also considered the properties of compounds that have been accepted for use in Europe, but not in the United States, with an aim to identify the physico-chemical properties that confer the desired performance traits.
The roofing materials group searched for compounds to replace the UV protection HALS compounds that typically suffuse TPO (thermoplastic polyolefin) roofing membranes. Although HALS compounds are effective and regenerative (individual HALS molecules can undergo multiple antioxidant cycles), they are toxic and tend to leach out of the membrane, posing an environmental threat . This group investigated a strategy of coupling natural antioxidants such as Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and poly-catechin to produce a regenerative antioxidant solution.
The Ocean Plastics team compared the performance and end-of-life behavior of bio-based plastics to petroleum-derived types, with the goal of identifying polymers that behave more similarly to cellulose, keratin, or DNA polymers in the environment. Their research indicated that plastics that degrade only to nano- or micro-scale structures can be very hazardous, readily absorbing persistent organic pollutants and remaining in the food chain. The problem of the ubiquity of nano-plastic bits in the environment was an additional and novel performance challenge that they considered in their final report.
The team’s final findings were presented to the partners, BCGC board and the general public on the UC Berkeley campus on Tuesday December 4th, and at the annual BizNGO conference, also held in Berkeley.
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