Further testing showed that these reclaimed monomers are high quality enough that they can be used to produce high quality plastic.
Prior to the discovery, the unpredictability of the properties had made it almost impossible to perform what has been coined "the Holy Grail of recycling", a "circular" material that can be used over and over again for any number of products, including adhesives, phone cases, computer cables and more.
Researchers at the US Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory set out to address this issue at a molecular level by designing a new type of plastic that can be recycled endlessly.
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". "Recovered monomers can be re-manufactured into the same polymer formulation, without loss of performance, as well as other polymer formulations with differentiated properties". Once chemicals are added to the plastic for use and consumption, the monomers bind with the chemicals and make it hard to be processed at recycling plants, the researchers said.
The end result is a plastic ingredient that can shake off any colours or strengthening agents in several easy steps to be turned back into another product. 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 hope is that recycling facilities could also be upgraded to process the new plastic. Most plastics are made of polymers, chains of hydrogen and carbon which are chiefly derived from petroleum products like crude oil.
The full study was published last month in the journal Nature Chemistry.
What the Berkeley Lab researchers did was create a new kind of plastic called polydiketoenamine (PDK) that takes the bonds that monomers make with additives and makes them reversible.
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"We're at a critical point where we need to think about the infrastructure needed to modernize recycling facilities for future waste sorting and processing", says Helms.
Recycling reusable materials is a key effort in reducing resource consumption and waste, but now available materials make that hard. There are billions of tons of plastics in landfills and the oceans that will take a Herculean effort to clean up. The acid helps to break the bonds between the monomers and separates them from the chemical additives that give plastics their look and feel, according to a report byScience Daily.
Next, they proved that the recovered PDK monomers can be remade into polymers, and those recycled polymers can form new plastic materials without inheriting the color or other features of the original material - so that broken black watchband you tossed in the trash could find new life as a computer keyboard if it's made with PDK plastic.
"If these facilities were created to recycle or upcycle PDK and related plastics, then we would be able to more effectively divert plastic from landfills and the oceans", he said.
Plastic recycling figures are trending down, making breakthroughs in recyclable plastic all the more important.
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"This is an exciting time to start thinking about how to design both materials and recycling facilities to enable circular plastics", he said.