The Future of Recycling: Dissolving Plastic with Electricity

resort beach covered in plastic trash and seaweed washed up from the ocean.


by | Jul 10, 2023

resort beach covered in plastic trash and seaweed washed up from the ocean.


In the battle against mounting plastic waste, chemists at the University of Colorado Boulder have made significant progress with a groundbreaking approach to recycling. Their method involves dissolving plastic using electricity and chemical reactions, offering a promising solution to the global plastic trash problem. This article explores the team’s innovative research, focusing on the potential of their findings and their implications for the future of recycling.

Tackling the Plastic Waste Crisis

Plastic waste has become an ever-increasing concern worldwide. In 2018, the United States alone produced nearly 36 million tons of plastic products, with the majority ending up in landfills. Assistant Professor Oana Luca, co-author of the study, highlights the inefficiencies of current recycling practices, stating that most recyclable plastic never gets recycled. Consequently, the team set out to find a way to recover molecular materials, the building blocks of plastics, to enable their reuse.

Witnessing the Breakthrough

The researchers at CU Boulder focused their efforts on polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a commonly used plastic found in water bottles, blister packs, and polyester fabrics. Through small-scale lab experiments, they mixed PET fragments with a specialized molecule and applied a low electric voltage. In a matter of minutes, the PET began to disintegrate, presenting a groundbreaking development in chemical recycling.

Lead author Phuc Pham, a doctoral student in chemistry, describes the excitement of observing the reaction in real-time. As the process unfolded, the solution transformed from a deep pink color to a clear state, signifying the breakdown of the polymer. This simple yet captivating process demonstrates the potential for a novel approach to recycling plastic waste.

Rethinking Recycling

Luca emphasizes the need for a paradigm shift in how we perceive trash and recycling. While recycling bins may appear to offer a solution, many municipalities worldwide struggle with the collection and sorting of massive amounts of daily waste. Traditional recycling methods often alter the material properties of plastic, resulting in the production of disposable items like plastic bags. In contrast, the CU Boulder team aims to repurpose the basic ingredients of old plastic bottles to create new ones, similar to rebuilding with Lego blocks.

The Path Ahead: From Waste to Resource

To achieve their goal, the researchers turned to electrolysis, a process that utilizes electricity to break apart molecules. While electrolysis has been successfully used to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen gas, PET plastic presents a more challenging task. The team developed a solution by grinding plastic bottles into a powder, mixing it with a solution, and introducing an additional molecule known as [N-DMBI]+ salt. This molecule acts as a reactive mediator, donating an electron to the PET under the influence of electricity, causing the plastic to disintegrate.

While the researchers have made significant progress in breaking down PET into its building blocks on a small scale, they acknowledge the need for further optimization and scaling up for industrial applications. Lead author Pham expresses the team’s commitment to refining the process, underscoring that this breakthrough is just the beginning.

Luca envisions a future where electrochemical methods can be employed to break down various types of plastic simultaneously. This could lead to the retrieval of useful molecules from vast garbage patches in the ocean, transforming waste into valuable resources. The potential of this technology offers a glimpse into a sustainable and circular future for plastic materials.


The innovative research conducted by chemists at CU Boulder presents a significant leap forward in the field of chemical recycling. Their method, utilizing electricity and chemical reactions to dissolve plastic, demonstrates the potential for a more efficient and sustainable approach to tackling the global plastic waste crisis. While further development and scaling are required, the breakthrough paves the way for a future where recycling becomes a powerful tool for creating a circular economy.

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