No More Downcycling? Breakthrough Organic Catalyst = More Effective PET Plastic Recycling

ibm plastic recycling research photo

Photo: Monica M. Davey/Feature Photo Service for IBM
13 Billion PET Plastic Bottles are Thrown Away Each Year
Certain things are harder to recycle than others. While it's relatively easy to make a new aluminum can out of an old aluminum can, making a new plastic bottle out of an old one is a lot harder. Currently, most recycled plastic is not truly recycled, but rather downcycled to a lesser use. But thanks to a breakthrough in green chemistry by IBM and Stanford researchers, this might be about to change!
ibm plastic recycling chart image

Image: IBM
Getting Closer to Cradle to Cradle
In the paper title Organocatalysis: Opportunities and Challenges for Polymer Synthesis published in the American Chemical Society journal Macromolecules, the scientists explain how they were able to create an "highly active, environmentally benign" organic catalysts that can chemically break down PET into monomers, the building blocks of polymers. They can then use those to make new plastic of the same quality as the feedstock, and all this at relatively low temperatures, allowing for "closed loop" recycling with low energy use.

This is in contrast with what we do right now: PET plastics are mechanically broken down with metal-based catalysts and then mixed in with virgin PET at high temperatures (and so a lot of energy is used). The result is of a lower grade than what the original feedstock, so it can only be used for "secondary products" like carpets and clothing that can't be recycled a second time.

IBM will partner with researchers at the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia to do larger scale tests of the organic catalysts for recycling PET. Let's hope that it works well, and that this recycling method can be scaled up rapidly to close the loop on these types of plastics (and others).

Of course, it's still better not to use plastic bottles in the first place...

The beauty is that this new approach not only works for fossil-fuel based plastics, but also for bio-plastics.

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