This plastic can be recycled an “infinite” number of times and it could help solve our environmental woes
Not a day goes by when we aren’t being reminded aboutplastic’s detrimental effects on our environment. This years’ Earth Day was even dedicated to raising awareness about the toxic material, and cotton bud and plastic straw bans are being floated by the UK government.
Now, scientists have discovered a new form of plastic that could theoretically be recycled an “infinite” number of times, and it could provide an alternative to getting rid of plastic altogether.
The team of chemists from Colorado State University, led by Eugene Chen, discovered a new polymer that has all the same properties of plastic – it’s strong, lightweight, durable and heat resistant – but more importantly, unlike the plastic we use today, the polymer can be easily converted back into its original small-state molecules for recycling.
Polymers, which are materials made up of chemically-bonded units called monomers, are widely used today. Some examples of synthetic polymers include fibres, rubbers, ceramics and of course, plastic.
Publishing its findings in the journal Science, the team outlined how the newly discovered polymer has a structure that allows the monomers to be “re-polymerised” over and over in an environmentally friendly way, without the use of solvents. With just a catalyst, and a few minutes of reaction time at room temperature, the material becomes a feasible substitute to conventional plastics – that is, if it can be scaled up.
“It would be our dream to see this chemically recyclable polymer technology materialise in the marketplace,” Chen said.
The plastic would be de-polymerised in a reactor and returned to its original chemical state, making it an infinitely recyclable material. It would essentially redefine what it means to recycle plastic, especially as only 10% of the conventional material is currently recycled correctly.
This polymer isn’t the only hope in our everlasting battle with plastic. Last week, scientists accidentally created a mutant enzyme that eats plastic waste by breaking it down in an industrial setting.
Still, while exciting, it’s wise not to lose sight of the many ways plastic currently harms the environment, considering we may never see this polymer physically materialise in the market on a global scale. Since 1950, humans have produced 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic, with a half of that being made in the last fourteen years. Researchers are even estimating that by 2050, 12 billion metric tonnes will end up in landfills.