This New Plastic Could Close the Recycling Loop

Plastic waste is a massive problem, but researchers at the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory believe they might have a solution: a plastic that can be broken down to its molecular parts and then reused.

It’s estimated that we produce as much as 300 million tons of plastic waste every single year, and while a small proportion of that is recycled (20-30 percent), most of it ends up going to incinerators or landfills.

Incinerated plastic contributes to our CO2 emissions problem. If it rests in landfills it remains there for thousands of years, because plastic has one trait that has proved to be great for manufacturing but terrible for the natural world: it breaks down incredibly slowly.

That means we are literally drowning under the plastic waste we produce. Large items clog up our oceans, and microplastics make it to seemingly every remote corner and towering vista of our world.

However, researchers writing this month in the science journal “Nature Chemistry” say they may have found a solution to this mammoth plastic waste problem.

Dubbed polydiketoenamine or PDK plastics, researchers have designed the new type of plastic so it can be recycled repeatedly. For example, a plastic utensil you used could become a plastic watch strap, if it were made from PDK.

The plastic achieves this malleability as a result of its makeup. Modern plastics are often reinforced and made with certain chemical compounds which help the plastics to hold their structure, provide color or other properties. However, they also make breaking the plastics down to recycle much more difficult. This means that only a portion of plastics are recyclable, and when we do recycle them, we mixed them with other plastics. In turn, this makes it difficult to predict what properties the new composite plastic will inherit, meaning that recycled plastics have limited usability, and the more times we recycle them, the narrower their uses become.

But PDK plastics are different. They are strung together with diketoenamine, and this means that recycling facilities could break the plastics down to a molecular level with ease. In fact, a 12-hour soak in an acid bath will do the job and render the plastics ready to be re-manufactured.

The researchers wanted to know just how easy this process of breaking down the plastics for recycling might be in the real world, so they contaminated the plastics with things like flame-retardant chemicals and fiberglass. The idea was to simulate processes that modern manufacture would require if companies used the plastics to produce everyday items. They found that the addition of these substances had little impact on PDK’s ability to break down in an acid bath and therefore did not prevent the plastics being recycled.

This is potentially great news, because it turns what is currently a linear manufacturing process, creating plastics which we then throw away, into a cyclical process, where we can reuse them.

“Most plastics were never made to be recycled,” lead author Peter Christensen said in a press release. “But we have discovered a new way to assemble plastics that takes recycling into consideration from a molecular perspective.”

Researcher Brett Helms also explains the importance of a finding like this. “We’re at a critical point where we need to think about the infrastructure needed to modernize recycling facilities for future waste sorting and processing,” Helms says. ”If these facilities were designed to recycle or upcycle PDK and related plastics, then we would be able to more effectively divert plastic from landfills and the oceans. This is an exciting time to start thinking about how to design both materials and recycling facilities to enable circular plastics.”

The next steps for this research are to ensure that PDK plastics hold up for different uses and to see what areas they are particularly well suited for. Researchers will also look at how traditional recycling facilities can incorporate the steps needed to break down these plastics.

We’re still some way off from seeing PDK plastics on our shelves, but this research hints at a future where we can close the loop on plastic waste and finally start to end our plastic pollution habit.

Photo credit: Getty Images.

56 comments

William T
William T2 days ago

Thank you

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Leo C
Leo Custer3 days ago

Thank you for posting!

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Gino C
Gino C4 days ago

Thank you for posting

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Virgene L
Virgene L5 days ago

Well, this could be really good news. We would also have to see if the added diketoenamine leached out into our consumables and caused any harm to living beings like ourselves! It also needs an additive that causes it to break down in the environment so any that is not properly disposed of is eaten by organisms. Thanks!

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Leo C
Leo Custer5 days ago

Thank you for sharing!

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Beryl L
Beryl L5 days ago

This seems all fine and dandy but what if the plastic does not end up where it's supposed to be and ends up floating in the ocean just like the rest of the crap. Do you think people are responsible enough to get the plastic back to the recycling plants? I doubt it seriously if our ocean is so crammed full of garbage now then just make some more plastic to add to it. Stop making plastic the world did revolve still when there was no plastic. If we don't stop plastic then we are allowing the endless amount of it piling up and polluting rivers streams lakes the ocean and landfills!

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Rosslyn O
Rosslyn O5 days ago

Whilst I am pleased new steps are being taken to help a problem, I would truly would like to see that cleaning up of all the crap plastics littering our planet now.

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Richard M
Richard M5 days ago

Every step helps, and even better to avoid using plastic at all, if possible.

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Toni W
Toni W5 days ago

TYFS

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Toni W
Toni W5 days ago

TYFS

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