Researchers are developing a fully recyclable plastic to solve the global plastic waste crisis

[Apr. 2, 2023: Staff Writer, The Brighter Side of News]

This new recyclable plastic is made from the same raw ingredient as Super Glue and could potentially provide a competitive alternative to traditional plastics. (CREDIT: Advances in Science)

Boise State University researchers Allison Christy and Scott Phillips have developed a new type of plastic that could be the solution to the global plastic waste crisis. This new recyclable plastic is made from the same raw ingredient as Super Glue and could potentially provide a competitive alternative to traditional plastics.

According to the researchers, almost 6 billion tons of plastic waste has been produced worldwide, of which less than 10% is recycled. Moreover, the raw materials used to make the plastic come from fossil fuels, which further contributes to environmental problems. The need for an alternative solution has never been greater.

The new plastic, called polyethylcyanoacrylate (PECA), can be recycled into clean starting materials in about 93% of the new plastic, according to small-scale laboratory tests that mimic industrial operations.

The researchers predict that if produced in industrial proportions, the new recyclable plastic PECA material could replace polystyrene plastics, which are not acceptable in the majority of curbside recycling programs.

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Polystyrene plastics represent only 6% of today’s plastic waste, which is only a small part of a much bigger problem. However, Christy and Phillips believe that eventually their new recyclable plastic could be a competitive alternative to plastics other than polystyrene.

PECA plastic has similar qualities to conventional polymers and remains stable in hot and humid environments, according to early lab tests by Christy and Phillips. The researchers demonstrated how the long polymer chains of PECA plastic can be thermally “cracked” at 210°C, with the resulting monomers being distilled into something similar to a clean product for reuse.

Recycling plastics is a good concept, but for consumers to support it, the proper procedures need to be in place. In Norway, programs have been put in place which have made it possible to recycle 97% of plastic bottles. It is crucial to have effective systems in place to ensure that plastic waste is recycled effectively.

Plastic cutlery in PECA. (CREDIT: Allison Christy/Boise State University)

The plastic waste crisis is not only an environmental issue, but also an economic and social one. The cost of cleaning up plastic waste and the impact on the tourism and fishing industries are significant. In addition, plastic waste harms marine life and plastic pollution affects human health.

The new recyclable plastic developed by Christy and Phillips has the potential to solve these problems. The researchers are optimistic about the potential of their new plastic and believe it could make a significant difference in the fight against plastic waste.

Christy and Phillips’ study was recently published in the Science Advances journal, where they describe the creation of a new type of plastic based on polyethylene cyanoacrylate, made from the same monomer as Super Glue. The researchers hope their new recyclable plastic will eventually provide a competitive alternative to traditional plastics.

Direct polymerization and casting of ethyl cyanoacrylate. (CREDIT: Advances in Science)

The production of PECA is not yet on an industrial scale and there is still a lot of work to be done. However, the potential benefits of this new plastic are promising. As the world grapples with the plastic waste crisis, exploring new solutions to address this critical issue is essential. The development of the new recyclable plastic by Christy and Phillips is an important step in the right direction.

Other recyclable plastics under development

The problem with conventional plastics is that they are often made from non-renewable fossil fuels and are not biodegradable, leading to significant environmental concerns. However, researchers have been working on developing new types of plastics that are not only biodegradable but also fully recyclable.

An example is polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA), a family of biodegradable polymers that can be produced from renewable resources such as vegetable oil or sugar cane. PHA is completely biodegradable and can be broken down by microorganisms into water, carbon dioxide and other harmless substances. Moreover, PHA can be recycled into new products without losing its quality or properties.

Another example is polyethylene furanoate (PEF), a plant-based polymer that can be produced from renewable sources such as sugar cane or corn. PEF has similar properties to conventional PET plastic but is fully biodegradable and can be recycled multiple times without losing its properties.

Other examples of fully recyclable plastics include polyethylene terephthalate glycol (PETG), polylactic acid (PLA), and polybutylene succinate (PBS).

Although these new types of plastics offer promising solutions to the plastic waste crisis, they are not yet widely adopted in the industry and face challenges such as cost effectiveness and scalability. However, ongoing research and development in this area should make fully recyclable and biodegradable plastics more feasible for widespread use in the future.

For more articles on ecology, see our Green Impact section on The bright side of the news.

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