When reassembled, the plastic can be given new textures, colors, and shapes, but without loss in its overall quality and performance.
But a team of researchers at Berkeley Lab might just have changed that - with a find described as the'Holy Grail', a plastic which can be recycled into dozens of different materials, again and again. Even the mostrecyclable plastic, PET - or poly (ethylene terephthalate) - is only recycled at a rate of 20-30%, with the rest typically going to incinerators or landfills, where the carbon-rich material takes centuries to decompose.
Plastics aren't recycled almost as much as we'd like them to be, but a team from Berkeley Lab has developed a method to hopefully make that process easier.
"We've already seen the impact of plastic waste leaking into our aquatic ecosystems, and this trend is likely to be exacerbated by the increasing amounts of plastics being manufactured and the downstream pressure it places on our municipal recycling infrastructure", said study researcher Brett Helms, from Berkeley Lab's Molecular Foundry. They are calling it polydiketoenamine or PDK, and this new plastic can be disassembled all the way down to the molecular level. To create items such as water bottles, bags, multi-colored straws, and stretchy foodservice wrap, manufacturers add various chemicals and fillers to give plastics desired qualities-which makes recycling different plastics together hard as the end result is unpredictable and/or undesirable.
"We're interested in the chemistry that redirects plastic lifecycles from linear to circular", says Helms.
This means that instead of a container becoming another new container, it becomes a different, less useful product instead of completing the "recycling loop".
A new material which allows plastics to be broken down and recycled over and over again could spell an end to single use products. "To our surprise, they were the original monomers", Helms said. The researchers believe that their new recyclable plastic could be a good alternative to many nonrecyclable plastics in use today.
The researchers next plan to develop PDK plastics with a wide range of thermal and mechanical properties for applications as diverse as textiles, 3D printing, and foams.
This is great news for a planet strangling in discarded plastic but let's not let our enthusiasm run away with us here. Right now, the team is working on making the material greener by incorporating plant-based materials.
While these "greener" plastics will hopefully help reduce plastic pollution in the future, humanity still needs to deal with the 18 billion pounds of conventional plastic that get into our oceans each year and the 6,300 million metric tons of plastic created since 1950. While some countries are doing all they can, countries like the U.S. are barely managing to recycle a quarter of their PET waste. The hope is that recycling facilities could also be upgraded to process the new plastic. Another way to put is, "Heads, we win".
We are fortunate that a possible solution has been found, but let's not gloss over the fact that the breakthrough comes from an arm of the big bad federal government, which reactionaries always demean as "the problem, not the solution".
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We've been learning a lot, as an engineering team all the time, and it's getting better and better. I think I'm a much better team player than I've ever been in my career.