Innovation That Matters

Plastic bags are made of polyethylene | Photo source Possessed Photography on Unsplash

A breakthrough plastic upcycling process

Science

A recent study opens up the possibility of converting polyethylene plastic into higher-value products

Spotted: As the world grapples with the growing problem of plastic pollution, there is an urgent need for better options for extracting the energy and molecular value from waste plastics. Conventional plastic recycling methods only result in low-value plastic molecules, providing little incentive to recycle. However, new technologies are emerging that have the potential to transform waste plastics into valuable resources.

Among these is a process to transform one of the most produced plastics into another type of widely used plastic. Developed by a collaboration of scientists from American universities, the new technology may help to reduce the environmental impact of plastic pollution while also providing a financial incentive for recycling.

The process, which is the fruit of a joint effort between the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the University of California, Santa Barbara, and chemical giant Dow, involves breaking down the long chain molecules of polyethylene (PE) into much shorter molecules. These can then be used to create polypropylene (PP). PE is used in a range of products, from packaging to bottles, while PP is found in items such as car parts and Tupperware. The team behind the research believes that this could provide a valuable incentive for companies to recycle their plastic waste, as they would be able to sell it on at a higher price.

The new study published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society has established a proof-of-concept for upcycling PE plastic into propylene with more than 95 per cent selectivity. The researchers have also built a reactor that creates a continuous flow of propylene that can be converted into PP – allowing for scalability and rapid implementation.

Springwise has spotted a plethora of innovative solutions to the problem of plastic waste. These include the use of PPE waste to make tennis accessories, strengthen concrete, and produce self-healing, recyclable plastic.

Written By: Katrina Lane

Email: guironne@illinois.edu

Website: illinois.edu

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