Meet Nithya Subramanian, a member of the Circular Packaging team at Brightlands Materials Center. As part of the Circular Packaging program, Nithya is involved in the crucial task of investigating polymers used in packaging, aiming to make them more recyclable. Additionally, Nithya focuses on enhancing the quality of recycled plastics, enabling their reuse in new applications.
Within the program, Nithya’s primary focus lies on addressing the challenges posed by specific plastic packaging that holds no recycling value, for example, multilayer structures. They also explore both flexible and rigid packaging applications, investigate new applications for recycled products, and contribute to the development of designing guidelines. If you’re eager to learn more about Nithya’s specific role within this program, read on for further insights.
Can you give us a little insight into your background and expertise?
“Currently I am working as a scientist at the Circular Packaging program of Brightlands Materials Center. I am originally from India, where I obtained by bachelors degree in Aerospace Engineering. After that, I moved to the United States to do a graduate school and my PhD on polymers used in lightweight composites. Later on, I also worked on ion transport in clay minerals and electrolytic solutions. From all these previous experiences I can actually identify myself as a material scientist in several areas. In 2020 I moved to the Netherlands to do a Marie Curie fellowship offered by the European Commission. I came across the position at the Circular Packaging program and I really saw an overlap with my background. This really attracted me to apply!”
“Since the majority of day-t0-day plastic waste from households but also industries comes from packaging, we really want to make all this plastic recyclable and the whole waste chain circular.”
What is the essence of the Circular Packaging program?
“The main vision of this program is to make plastic packaging circular. Since the majority of day-t0-day plastic waste from households but also industries comes from packaging, we really want to make all this plastic recyclable and the whole waste chain circular. On the other hand, plastic is also a necessity, especially in terms of food for example. Therefore, we want good and functional but recyclable packaging. This also means that we want to focus on upgrading the quality of recycled materials for instance. Furthermore, the sealing of the packaging is plays a role in this. Recyclable packaging can be more challenging to seal reliably. So we want to improve the sealing of packaging that are recylable or those that have recycled content. With this, we reduce the amount of new polymers being produced and introduced in the market.”
What is your role in the Circular Packaging program?
“Since September 2022 I am working as a scientist within this department. This means that I am mainly involved in projects by building scientific content. I also work closely with universities, companies and industries, which I really like! Thinking about new ideas, writing new proposals, working on projects and guiding the direction of the program are keeping me busy on a daily basis. Since I have a background in academia I really enjoy working ánd learning from students, so when I got the chance to be a student mentor I was really glad! I am guiding them with their thesis or internship. The combination is perfect for me.”
Is there any specific project you are working on?
“Currently I am working on three different projects. One of them, SYSCHEMIQ, is a EU project which is funded by the European Commission through Horizon funds. This is a very big project with more than 20 partners. Syschemiq aims at speeding up the circular economy by making a significant next step on the roadmap towards a circular urban-industrial plastics district. There are 8 work packages within this project and since BMC is leader of one of the work packages, I am guiding this project. I find it very interesting and challenging to coordinate the work as the leader of one of the work packages.”
“Syschemiq aims at speeding up the circular economy by making a significant next step on the roadmap towards a circular urban-industrial plastics district.”
“One of the other projects I am working on is an internal project about machine learning models. Most of the times packaging contains new polymers, but when we start replacing new polymers with recycled polymers, the whole process needs to change. For example, the melting and sealing temperatures for recycled polymers is different from new/prime polymers. This project is focused on building a machine learning model that predicts the parameters for the sealing process when recycled material is involved. It’s very important because soon it’s becoming a EU mandate packaging should contain 30% of recycled content. That’s why we are working on building this machine learning model.”
“Most of the times packaging contains new polymers, but when we start replacing new polymers with recycled polymers, the whole process needs to change.”
Which project is the most important for you?
“Personally I find the machine learning project quite exciting. It’s a relatively small project but that makes it even more challenging because we only have 1 year for this project. Why is this project so important for me? It really has a lot of impact on the future as we are starting to use more recycled materials. However, there is a lot of uncertainty because the quality of the packaging also depends on the sort of waste. For example, waste from The Netherlands is different than waste from Germany. So how is a company supposed to program their recycling tools when they are unsure about what sort of waste they are getting? The machine learning model can have a lot of impact predicting this. Since I have a background in material science modeling, it really fits my interests as well.”
What would you like to work on in the future?
“I would be highly interested in participating in a project that focuses on tracing the types of polymers used in packaging, as there is a lack of prior knowledge regarding whether the packaging contains recycled or new polymers. Being able to trace the origin and composition of polymers would be incredibly valuable.”