Scientists Develop Plastic That Can Be Recycled Repeatedly... But Does it Matter?

Katie Ramirez
May 11, 2019

"Most plastics were never made to be recycled", according to lead author Peter Christensen, a postdoctoral researcher at Berkeley Lab's Molecular Foundry.

Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley Nationwide Laboratory possess designed a plastic that could presumably additionally be recycled over and over, and became novel materials of any coloration, form, or create. The scientists continued playing around with PDK, until they discovered that PDK monomers could be remade into polymers that could form completely new plastic materials.

The new plastic this team has cooked up - what they're calling called polydiketoenamine, or PDK - could make recycling more appealing because all that's needed is some acid to separate its chemical additives from the monomers.

"That broken murky watchband you tossed within the trash could presumably compile novel existence as a computer keyboard if it's made with our PDK plastics", Helms talked about. Only less than a third of recyclable plastic is repurposed after the recycling process, and the rest are either disposed of as non-recyclable waste or incinerated.

The chemical building blocks - monomers - of PDK plastic could be recovered and freed from any compounded additives simply by dunking the material in a highly acidic solution. At this time, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is the most recyclable plastic, but around 70- to 80-percent of it ends up in landfills or incinerators. 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. That's why most recycled plastic is "downcycled" or turned into items like handbags or benches instead of completing the recycling loop by becoming milk jugs, water bottles and Greek yogurt tubs.

After testing various formulations at the Molecular Foundry, they demonstrated that not only does acid break down PDK polymers into monomers, but the process also allows the monomers to be separated from entwined additives.

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Though PDK only exists in the lab now (meaning products won't be available for purchase for some time), the researchers are nonetheless excited by what they've discovered and the potential positive impact it could have.

"If these products and companies had been created to recycle or upcycle PDK and linked plastics, then we could presumably be ready to extra effectively divert plastic from landfills and the oceans", Helms talked about.

Despite the efforts of countries around the world to reduce or end the use of plastic, the amount of plastic in the world's oceans is increasing, and spreading across the planet.

The full study was published last month in the journal Nature Chemistry.

All plastics are more or less repeating units - or monomers - of compounds derived from an organic substance like petroleum. The team's breakthrough provides better recycling and upcycling opportunities for many plastic products like shoes, watch bands, adhesives, and many more.

That study was based off a 2015 investigation that estimated there were between 4.8 trillion and 12.7 trillion pieces of plastic entering the ocean every year.

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