Research combats plastic

2019-02-13 06:01
Dr Julia Mofokeng

Dr Julia Mofokeng

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Dr Julia Mofokeng, a lecturer in the Department of Chemistry at the University of the Free State’s Qwaqwa campus (UFS), is doing research to combat the damage plastic does to the environment.

The aim of her investigation of the morphology and properties of polymer blends, composites, and nanocomposites is to find a product that causes less harm than the non-biodegradable plastics commonly used for short shelf life and disposable products.

Although some efforts have been made to recycle plastic bottles and packaging material, Mofokeng believes these have no significant impact.

“Up to 40% of plastics produced annually are used by the packaging industry and end up in landfill sites. Our landfills are full of non-biodegradable, petroleum-based materials,” she says.

“Wind moves plastic into the vicinity of our wildlife, where animals mistake it for food. This results in diminishing wildlife, since animals cannot digest plastics.

“Other such plastics end up in our aquatic environment, polluting the water and endangering marine life as well,” says Mofokeng.

But it doesn’t end there, she explains.

“During the incineration of these petroleum-based plastics, harmful gases like carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, dioxins, and furans – all major atmospheric polluters – are released.”

According to Mofokeng, not much has been done about biodegradable polymer blends that are compatibilised and reinforced with inorganic nanofillers.

“Only recently, researchers became aware of a process to improve the product that can be used for packaging, as well as replacing polystyrene serviceware, single-use crockery, cutlery, and nappies,” she says.

“It can also be used in aerospace and automotive industries for interior parts. Since these products can be composted or recycled, disposal is not such a big problem.”

Mofokeng’s research, which pivots around preparing completely biodegradable polymer blends and blend nanocomposites, has been presented at 14 local and international conferences. She has published 12 articles in specialised peer-reviewed journals.

“Our aim is to save energy and raise environmental awareness,” she says.

“I hope to empower and prepare postgraduate students for the research world.”


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