An IBM and University of Houston (UH) study asserts that new approaches can help increase the amount of plastic waste being successfully recycled.
Most of the 150 million tons of plastics end up in landfills and oceans every year. Less than 9 percent of plastics are recycled in the U.S., rising to about 30 percent in Europe.
The researchers are hoping their study can help mitigate this $176 billion dilemma.
The proposed approaches range from methods to recycle different types of plastics together in one waste stream, avoiding a costly and time-consuming sorting process, and breaking down plastics in a more energy-efficient manner.
Improving methods to recycle existing plastic materials is a key priority, suggests UH associate professor Megan L. Robertson: “New materials enter the market slowly, and thus the biggest impact is in developing more efficient methods to recycle the plastics that are produced in large quantities today. One the other hand, research advances can pave the way for more easily recyclable materials for the future.”
One example is the category of polymers known as thermosets, which can’t be melted down for repurposing, preventing their recycling with traditional methods.
Robertson’s lab develops biorenewable components for thermosets, replacing hydrocarbon-based polymers with those made from vegetable oils or other plant-based materials. That could lead to new end-of-life options such as composting or chemical recycling for these materials, a huge leap forward.
The researchers nevertheless say that it is critical that a material’s performance isn’t impacted in order to make it easier to recycle.
Subjecting plastics to many use and recycling cycles without loss of performance remains a challenge for the scientific community at large.
Image credits and excerpts: PAPREC/University of Houston