New Method Turns Plastic Waste into New Products

colored plastic bottle tops load down a metal mesh container.

(Credit: Unsplash.com)

by | Aug 25, 2023

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colored plastic bottle tops load down a metal mesh container.

(Credit: Unsplash.com)

Plastic waste is a big issue in the United States, where very few products are actually recycled. Researchers have been focused on how to improve this issue, and a new method has revealed how plastics can be turned into starting materials for other products. 

The new method, developed by researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, produces chemicals that can be used in future products. The new method, developed by researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, produces chemicals that can be used in future products. The finding comes at a crucial time for plastics recycling, as less than 9% of plastics are recycled in the United States. 

Through what is known as the cobalt-catalyzed reaction, aldehydes are produced that the researchers then hydrogenated to produce alcohols and diols.

“This route produces high-value oxygenated chemicals from low-value postconsumer recycled polyethylene,” first author Houqian Li, of the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, University of Wisconsin–Madison, wrote in the abstract. “We project that the chemicals produced by this route could lower greenhouse gas emissions (around) 60% compared with their production through petroleum feedstocks.”

The researchers published their findings in the journal Science, stating that implementing the new recycling method could help the U.S. improve its recycling record and align with other countries. Of note, the European Union has a goal to recycle 30% of its plastic waste, researchers said. 

The findings also come as the public is generally dissatisfied with the low rate of plastics recycling, putting pressure on governments to find new solutions that don’t contribute to the climate crisis. 

“Therefore, a plastics circular economy, in which new, high-quality plastics can be remanufactured from plastic waste, is becoming increasingly popular. Plastics should no longer be considered waste but rather valuable resources,” Kevin M. Van Geem, of the Laboratory for Chemical Technology, Center for Sustainable Chemistry, Ghent University in Belgium, wrote in a perspective in the publication Science.

By turning plastic waste into alcohols, aldehydes, surfactants, and detergents, the researchers have shown big promise for a process that the recycling industry could soon adopt.

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