Humanity is creating plastic waste at a staggering rate. Despite the damage that plastic does to the environment, the amount we can recycle is dwarfed by the amount we throw into landfills. Although everyone knows that plastic is a problem, traditional recycling methods simply aren’t effective enough.
A new technique created by researchers from the University of California Santa Barbara could help change that. It works by breaking down plastics at the molecular level. The process ultimately yields a liquid that can be used in other applications while ridding the world of plastic pollution.
Plastics are made up of various strands of carbon. Each type of plastic has unique properties thanks to the way that these carbon chains are combined. Simply melting down plastic seems like a good way to recycle it. However, in reality, it results in a product that is just as bad as the plastic waste itself.
The new method that researchers developed is actually a bit gentler than melting the plastic. Instead, it breaks the carbon chains without using a massive amount of energy. The process also doesn’t result in dangerous emissions like those that are given off in the traditional melting process.
Susannah Scott is the lead researcher and author of the study detailing how the team’s system works. The paper is published in the journal Science.
She says, “The process we have developed does not require high temperatures, but instead depends on tiny amounts of a catalyst containing a metal that removes a little hydrogen from the polymer chain.”
“The catalyst then uses this hydrogen to cut the bonds that hold the carbon chain together, making smaller pieces.”
At the end of the process, the plastic waste is turned into a liquid containing molecules called alkylbenzenes. These are solvents that are used to make things like detergents. Scientists believe that it is possible to reuse the liquid that is produced during the recycling process, thus making it an even more effective solution.
Big Picture Questions
Like most new recycling methods, this one has only been tested on a small scale. Researchers tested it with polyethylene, an extremely common plastic that is found in things like food packaging and construction materials.
The team was able to successfully break down polyethylene waste into the alkylbenzene-containing liquid with a “one-pot process” that required minimal heat. This makes it an efficient solution that could end up costing less than traditional recycling methods.
In the future, researchers hope to test the process on a larger scale to see if it is able to process greater amounts of plastic. If so, it could be a valuable addition to the recycling methods we currently use. It may also help Earth get one step further away from a plastic pollution crisis larger than the one we are currently living.