Plastic is a miracle and a curse. Its durability and low manufacturing cost make it an ideal material for creating medical supplies, electronic devices, and single-use goods. When properly recycled, plastic is a marvel of modern innovation. But is it really as recyclable as it seems?
Recycling requires plastic to be melted down, a process which weakens the polymer bonds and decreases its integrity. Recycled materials then have to be infused with virgin plastic to create new products, limiting how many times it can be recycled. The material’s limited reusability equates to a lot of plastic finding its way to landfills. According to a recent study published in Science Advances, if there were a way to recycle plastic repeatedly without weakening its structural integrity, humans could eliminate over 260 million tons of waste each year. Thankfully, a recent technological innovation could change the way we look at plastic waste forever.
Professor Eugene Chen from the Department of Chemistry at Colorado State University is working with a team of researchers to develop the world’s first infinitely recyclable plastic. The new material has many of the same properties valued in traditional plastic like durability, heat resistance, and strength. The team originally debuted the new polymer (a class of materials composed of many repeated chains of molecular units called monomers) in 2015 and has since been working to refine the material for industrially realistic conditions.
For industrial application, the polymer needs to be created in a room temperature setting, without the use of solvents, and should show only trace amounts of the catalyst used to polymerize the material. Chen and his team have now achieved those goals and invented a material that can be easily created and broken down in industrial settings. When the material is ready to be recycled, the polymer is broken down using solvents, recycled back into a monomer, re-polymerized, and ultimately reused in new materials.
According to Science Daily, Chen and his colleagues may have just redefined what it means to recycle. “Green plastics, rather than surviving in landfills and oceans for millions of years, can be simply placed in a reactor and, in chemical parlance, de-polymerized to recover their value … Back at its chemical starting point, the material could be used over and over again.”
At this stage, the new technology has only been demonstrated in academic lab settings. Developers are working to create a more cost-effective version of the polymer and hope to refine the process to such an extent that it can be applied to large-scale industrial manufacturing in a manner similar to existing plastics.