Dara Woerdeman is blazing a new trail — one that’s not lined with those annoying plastic packing peanuts. Her small Philadelphia company, R&D Green Materials, is finding ways to make plastics from plants, instead of petroleum, so that they won’t pollute the planet. Woerdeman spoke to Knowledge@Wharton High School about how her passions for music and science led to her new career as an environmentalist and entrepreneur. An edited version of that conversation follows.
Knowledge@Wharton High School: Did you dream about cleaning the world in high school?
Dara Woerdeman: I didn’t realize I was an environmentalist until very recently. I was raised not to be very materialistic and instead to be outwardly focused, which means you’re thinking about not being wasteful. My desire to clean up the world came on later and grew out of my interest in science.
Knowledge@Wharton High School: When did you first discover your love of science?
Woerdeman: My father was a violinist with the National Symphony. He encouraged my twin sister and I to study music at a very early age. Music cultivated in me discipline and attention to detail, two characteristics that are extremely important to doing science effectively. My sister and I did our senior year of high school at Thomas Jefferson School for Science & Technology in Annandale, Virginia. That’s where my interest in science grew. There are these misconceptions that you have to know what you want to do at a very young age or you’re not going to be successful. In most cases, people’s interests evolve over time.
Knowledge@Wharton High School: How did you move from scientist to environmentalist?
Woerdeman: I was a chemistry major at the College of William and Mary. I started working on “applied” scientific problems because it gave me a sense of purpose to see how society could benefit from my research. I ended up studying material science in graduate school and that was when I first started working with synthetic plastic polymers and composites. You see them all around us, in packaging and the products we use. In 2001, my husband and I moved to Belgium for a few years. The Europeans are much more progressive on the “green” front than the U.S. They are more environmentally conscious.
Knowledge@Wharton High School: When did you decide to start R&D Green Materials?
Woerdeman: I saw a serious need in this country to develop biodegradable plastic products, especially disposable plastics for packaging [like polystyrene packing peanuts]. Belgium was where I first started working with bio-based polymers. These are large molecules that have many of the same characteristics as regular plastics, but instead of using a petroleum-based material to make the plastic, we are using renewable, plant-based proteins. The properties are not identical to synthetic plastics, but in many cases they can be useful substitutes.
Knowledge@Wharton High School: Doesn’t recycling take care of most of the plastic problem?
Woerdeman: Recycling is a lot more complicated than most people realize. Once plastics are used, they contain a lot of contaminants. You have to first clean the plastics. You have many different kinds of petroleum-based plastics, so they have to be sorted. When you recycle you rarely ever recover the original properties of the plastic, so you then have to find a new, less-demanding use for the plastic.
Knowledge@Wharton High School: Do renewable plastics work as well as synthetic plastics?
Woerdeman: We’re not going to replace all synthetic plastics with biodegradable material. Synthetic plastics are meant to last forever. With certain kinds of commodity plastics, like toys, you run the risk of using a plant-based plastic that may degrade too soon. So you really have to consider the shelf life of the product, or how long it must last, when you’re designing biodegradable plastic. In some cases you may need the product to last for five years; whereas in others you may use it for packaging, throw it away and need it to degrade in one month.
Knowledge@Wharton High School: Are you focusing on specific products?
Woerdeman: Yes. We are going after disposable plastic applications like packaging and gardening products. We’re working with Burpee Seed Company to design some bio-based plastic products for gardening.
Knowledge@Wharton High School: Do you envision a synthetic plastic-free world?
Woerdeman: I don’t think it’s necessary we reach that point. We do want to reduce our consumption of petroleum-based resources, but I don’t think we have to eliminate all plastic. Best-case scenario is eliminating the disposable plastics, like polystyrene, that end up all over our highways and take space in our landfills. We need to minimize our disposal of synthetic plastic.
Knowledge@Wharton High School: How can high school students help?
Woerdeman: Students can take an interest in developing technologies and come up with new ideas about where they can be useful. The next generation needs to be willing to forfeit using synthetic plastics.