Auburn students, faculty aim to spur interest in the growing sustainable biomaterials and packaging field

Published: November 06, 2019
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Auburn University students pursuing the new sustainable biomaterials and packaging degree have become a driving force behind the degree’s visibility and potential growth.

“Younger generations have an increased environmental concern as well as awareness of the necessity of decreasing our impact on the planet,” said Soledad Peresin, assistant professor in the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences. “Interest in green technologies as well as bio-based alternatives to reduce packaging waste is very appealing to them.”

Peresin and Professor Brian Via are advisors for a new organization, the Sustainable Biomaterials and Packaging Society, co-founded by students Philip McMichael and Autumn Reynolds.

McMichael, the group’s president, said the main objective is to heighten the visibility of the sustainable biomaterials and packaging, or BIOP, degree.

“Autumn and I founded the Sustainable Biomaterials and Packaging Society in order to raise awareness within the entire Auburn student body about our new and exciting major, as well as the various fields of study it encompasses,” McMichael said. “We both felt that, as students, we are in a unique position to advocate for a better understanding of the potential of bio-based materials and sustainable packaging for our 21st-century world.”

Launched last fall in the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, the degree program prepares students for highly in-demand careers within bio-based industries, which is often cited as one of the nation’s next areas of significant economic growth.

McMichael said members can expect to hear industry leaders and experts speak on relevant topics, meet and collaborate with other students and faculty throughout the university and connect with people in both academia and the industry and participate in a variety of biomaterials-related events throughout the school year. The organization will meet biweekly.

Scott Enebak, associate dean and professor in the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, said participation in the degree program is on par with his first-year expectations: There are 10 students enrolled—two who transferred when the program opened, and eight who began this fall.

“New degrees are like a train sitting on a track: With all those boxcars, it takes a little time and a lot of effort to get the engine up to full speed,” Enebak said. But as word spreads about the BIOP degree’s relevance to society, manufacturing and natural resources, he said, student numbers will increase.

Enebak said today’s students are highly aware of the need for sustainability, including the use of renewable natural resources in packaging consumer goods.

As consumer trends increasingly move away from traditional products such as plastic straws and cups, he said, this degree will focus on developing new technologies that replace single-use plastic products with biomaterials that are safer to the environment.

Janaki Alavalapati, dean of the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, said the degree program, one of the only programs of its kind in the Southeast, is gaining momentum through its world-changing mission and the array of experts on hand to teach the courses.

“This degree program is taught collaboratively by world-renowned faculty from Auburn’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, and the colleges of Agriculture, Business and Architecture Design and Construction,” Alavalapati said. “Increasingly, companies are moving toward the use of sustainable forest biomaterial for everything from packaging, cosmetics and automobiles to appliances, pharmaceuticals and commercial construction. This shift is due to environmental concerns and evolving technologies.”

Via said the BIOP degree’s wide academic scope will broaden future career possibilities for majors.

“This degree covers a broad range of subjects from engineering to business, supply chain to life cycle assessment, and of course most importantly sustainable products and processes,” Via said. “So, students can work in a broad range of areas when they graduate, and they will be able to communicate across disciplines to translate jargon into meaningful information to different sets of ears.”

Reynolds, co-founder of the new BIOP organization, said the program’s interdisciplinary nature is one of its most valuable aspects.

“I appreciate the fact that I am not subjected to any one particular college, so I have a chance to bounce ideas to and from professors coming from many different backgrounds and focuses of study,” Reynolds said. “This has helped me develop my own vision about what I can make of my career.”

McMichael sees this development as just the beginning of a surge of support for the new degree program.

“I think that Auburn's BIOP program will create uniquely well rounded students who will be poised to make a real impact on the future of the field of sustainable biomaterials and packaging,” he said.

The Auburn University School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences is a flagship institution for natural resources-based degrees including natural resource management, geospatial and environmental informatics, and sustainable biomaterials and packaging. The school is also the backbone to Alabama's $22 billion forest, wildlife and natural resources industry. Its mission is to create future professionals and leaders and to develop new knowledge and science-based solutions and share them with individuals, families, communities and industries so they can make informed decisions to advance their business and well-being.