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Dec. 7, 2021

Muhammad Rabnawaz: Confronting the plastics problem

Each year, the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development Program, or CAREER, awards grants to “early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education.” The following story is part of a series highlighting Michigan State University’s recipients of NSF’s 2021 CAREER grant awards.

This Spartan researcher is cutting complexities to make valuable polymers that are easy to recycle

Keeping plastic waste out of landfills and water systems is a complicated problem that Michigan State University’s Muhammad Rabnawaz is working to simplify.


The United States recycles less than 10% of its plastic waste. The remainder is sent to landfills. Or worse, escapes into the environment where it can degrade into microplastics that pollute farmland, ecosystems and even drinking water. Rabnawaz is working to solve those problems by removing complexities from plastic production and recycling.

“The idea is to make everything easier,” says Rabnawaz, an assistant professor in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. “If we can do that, we can stop thinking of plastic as a waste or a burden. We can treat it as a resource.”

The National Science Foundation has awarded Rabnawaz, who works in the School of Packaging, a 2021 CAREER award to research how to best simplify plastics recycling. His team is working to create a handful of plastic materials that capture the best features of all the polymers that manufacturers currently use while minimizing the drawbacks. Put another way, he wants to do more with less.

“Instead of 20 different plastics to choose from, what if we had only five?” Rabnawaz asks.

To streamline the plastics portfolio, his team is developing valuable but affordable polymers that are easy to recycle, but retain their durability, flexibility and value after recycling. The materials also must be compatible with current manufacturing techniques such as injection molding, Rabnawaz says. It’s an ambitious plan, but MSU’s 2021 Innovator of the Year knows he’s in the right place to make it succeed.

“The collaborative environment that MSU and the School of Packaging provides is unprecedented,” he says. The school, top-ranked in the nation, is home to scientists with a diverse array of expertise. For example, Rabnawaz, a polymer chemist, is working with leading researchers in materials processing and environmental science.

“When it comes to sustainability, you need a team,” he said. “You need experts from different disciplines.”

He also knows that the future of sustainable manufacturing in the United States requires training the next generation of packaging scientists. To that end, he’s also using the CAREER award to bolster his lab’s outreach and education efforts.

With the grant, he’ll help public school educators develop teaching materials while creating research opportunities for undergraduates at MSU and Michigan’s community colleges. At the School of Packaging, he’ll also be bringing in experts from the packaging industry to talk to students so Spartans can gain real-world insights and build their professional networks.

“We are basically creating a workforce that will shape the future of sustainable manufacturing in the U.S.,” Rabnawaz says. “To do that, you need support and you need the logistics. We have those pieces at MSU, and the CAREER award is going to take my efforts to the next level.”

By: Matt Davenport and Kelsie Lane