Truly Recyclable Plastic Can Be Used Again and Again and Again

Marilyn Chung  Berkeley Lab
Researchers who discovered new recyclable plastic

The "Holy Grail" of recycling may finally be here.

A team of researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has reportedly developed a new recyclable plastic that can be recycled into new materials of any form, texture, color, or shape.

Brett Helms, the group scientist at the Berkeley Lab who led the study, instructed ABC Recordsdata that the novel discovery "could presumably vastly decrease the leakage of plastics into the ambiance". It takes 400 years to degrade but up to 91% of plastic is not being recycled., according to National Geographic.

Known as poly (diketoenamine), or PDK, the new type of plastic material could help stem the tide of plastics piling up at recycling plants, as the bonds PDK forms are able to be reversed via a simple acid bath, the researchers believe. Further testing showed that these reclaimed monomers are high quality enough that they can be used to produce high quality plastic. "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".

In an effort to divert plastics from landfills and oceans, the team wants to incentivize the recovery and reuse of plastics-which could be possible with polymers formed from PDKs. In fact, less than one-third of recyclable plastic is repurposed after the recycling process, with the rest being tossed along with other non-recyclable waste or incinerated.

Christensen and his colleagues claim that mixing the chemical compositions of different plastics together during the recycling process reduces the quality and reusability of the new plastic product.

In a flawless world, plastic would never be on a one-way trip into landfill - it's a vision we've strived to realise for decades. When that hodgepodge of chopped-up plastics is melted to make a new material, it's hard to predict which properties it will inherit from the original plastics.

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"We're interested in the chemistry that redirects plastic lifecycles from linear to circular", said Helms.

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.

The full findings of the study were published in the journal Nature Chemistry.

While many polymers are thermoplastic, meaning they can be melted down and reused, the additives bonded to them can make recycling them hard.

"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. 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.

"We see an opportunity to make a difference for where there are no recycling options", Helms added, advocating for the modernization of recycling facilities. Plastics are now everywhere, from the bottom of the ocean to remote mountaintops.

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