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What happens when glue works too well? Central Coast researchers developing a more eco-friendly formula

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo
Cal Poly San Luis Obispo students Taylor Vaughan and Reed Kellar work with Professor Philip Costanzo on efforts to produce a more environmentally friendly glue.

Most current glues work so well that clothing, electronics can't be easily disassembled for recycling.

A Central Coast research lab is trying to solve a sticky problem, and researchers now think they have the answer. When you use glue to fasten things together, the goal is to use a type which will keep the items together permanently, right?

"Most glues that are prepared are designed to last forever," said Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Professor Philip Costanzo.

The idea is that glue should do a good job of binding things. But, he says what’s happened is our glues work a little too well. You can’t pull things apart to recycle them.

"That inhibits reclaiming, or reusing any things it's actually gluing together," said Costanzo. "People didn't think about taking things apart... but as the world progresses, the world is more concerned about sustainability."

So, for the last decade, his Cal Poly lab has been looking at this issue, with some of his chemistry students playing a key role in the process.

The researcher said they’ve been focused on this problem for the last two years, and now, he thinks they’ve solved it.

The focus is on glues used on clothing like athletic wear, multi-layered clothing like raincoats, as well as some electronics. But, how do you create a glue that won’t stop working until you want it to? You don’t want something to fall apart.

He said the key is a glue that will hold up in a washing machine, but will come apart when exposed to higher than normal heat at a recycling facility. Costanzo admits finding that balance has been hard. He said they've tested more than 100 different formulas.

The professor says seven of his undergraduate students have been a huge part of the development process, doing most of the hands-on testing.

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo
Cal Poly students Reed Kellar and Taylor Vaughan work on a project to develop more environmentally friendly glue.

Taylor Vaughn is one of the Cal Poly students involved. The biochemistry major from Ventura said getting the hands on experience with something which may improve the planet’s sustainability is amazing.

"It's been one of the greatest experiences I've had at this school," said Vaughn. "Me and my lab partners call what we do working in the glue factory. It's definitely a love/hate thing, because it can get really sticky."

More testing is needed, but the hope is to team up with commercial partners and have it ready for use in 18 months to two years. It could mean that some of the clothing and electronics which now ends up and landfills can be taken apart, and given a new life through recycling.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.