Countless soldiers can recount tales of subsisting on MREs, or Meals Ready-to-Eat. These rations might not equal dining in style, but they are vital to keeping American troops nourished in the field.
Unfortunately, the environmental impact of MREs is substantial, with the rations producing 14,000 tons of packaging waste each year.
Nandika D'Souza, a researcher at the University of North Texas, is working with the United States military to make MRE packaging more environmentally friendly. She is developing materials that will take less than a month to decompose, instead of the four centuries that traditional petroleum-based plastics require.
With funding from the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center D'Souza, associate professor of materials science and engineering, is developing biocoatings for military products, including military-grade Meals Ready-to-Eat.
"This [research] is an important step as we aim to create even stronger, more efficient, cost-effective and environmentally friendly products," says D'Souza, who also is the director of the university's Polymer Mechanical and Rheology Laboratory.
D'Souza is in the third year of her three-year grant from the NSRDEC, which is part of the U.S. Department of Defense's "Lightweight and Compostable Military Packaging" initiative. D'Souza received $120,000 worth of funding for the project.
"Annually, there are more than 40 million MREs procured by the military with about 14,000 tons of MRE packaging waste each year," says NSRDEC investigator Jo Ann Ratto. "Dr. D'Souza's expertise and innovation in polymer nanocomposites first led us to work with her on MRE food packaging."
The military has stated that its goal is to have biodegradable and compostable MRE fiberboard containers that are lighter but still meet performance requirements.
D'Souza expects to complete the project in the spring of 2009. She and her team have already proven that they can make completely waterproof and compostable paper, and they also have done six months of shelf life testing. D'Souza believes that the packaging will maintain its structure and properties for at least a year in storage.
The team is now entering its final stages of testing. They are building a composting station on campus to test the rate of decomposition for the materials. D'Souza says the packaging should decompose in as little as a month, or it might only take a few weeks.
This grant is D'Souza's second from the NSRDEC. She also has a three-year grant to develop biodegradable packaging foams that could be disposed of in the ocean. The research is in conjunction with the U.S. Navy's Waste Reduction Afloat Protects the Seas program.
To find out more about D'Souza's work, read UNT Research magazine.
UNT News Service Press Release
Alyssa Aber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.