New Plant-Based Plastics Can be Chemically Recycled With Near-Perfect Efficiency

With plastic pollution creating such a monumental problem, and recycling technology being too often inefficient, there seems to be a new biodegradable, bio-based, or more easily dismantled conventional plastic polymer, invented every month.

In 2020, GNN reported on plastic item bags made from minerals that dissolve in boiling water, biodegradable flip-flops made from algae, additives that turn regular plastics into harmless bio-wax in nature in less than a year, newly discovered bacterial enzymes that breakdown plastic like dead leaves, and thermoplastic recycling which combines normal, mechanically chopped-up polymer with household waste to imprison the carbon it would otherwise produce.

Now a recent paper published in Nature shows us that hard plastic polymer can be manufactured with “break points” in the molecular carbon chains which allow them to be chemically recycled with 10x as much efficiency.

The polymers presented in the study could be manufactured with plant oils instead of fossil fuels, and when heated to 120° Celsius in either ethanol or methanol, breakdown from their complex polymers into constituent monomers at a salvage rate of 96%.

While most people probably think recycling is just recycling, 96% is a revolutionary improvement to current methods. As opposed to mechanical recycling, melting plastics isn’t cost, or energy effective for normal polymers like polyethylene or polyester.

The temperatures required to pull apart the durable hydrocarbon chains that make plastic so wondrously useful and versatile are 600° Celsius, and even after the molecules return to single units, a scant 10% of the resulting material is useable.

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With polyethylene being one of the cheapest building blocks of chemistry, the study authors admitted in an interview with The Academic Times, that it would be difficult to compete in a market or regulatory framework with the long-established plastic, and are therefore looking to other avenues like injection molding and 3D printing, which their new hydrocarbon is also perfect for.

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The introduced break points in the carbon chains could also create a far more biodegradable plastic, which is something the German chemists who developed them want to investigate.

Featured image: University of Konstanz, Mecking Research Group

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