Scientists from the Universities of Birmingham and Bath have developed a faster and more efficient way to recycle plant-based bioplastics.
According to the scientists, the new chemical recycling method not only speeds up the process, it can also be converted into a new product – a biodegradable solvent.
This can then be sold for use in a wide variety of industries including cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.
It generally takes several months for bioplastics, made from polylactic acid (PLA) to biodegrade once they are disposed of in landfill or composted.
The new study has shown how a chemical process using a zinc-based catalyst developed by the Bath team can be used to break down real consumer plastics and produce the green solvent, methyl lactate.
The Birmingham and Bath team tested their method on three separate PLA products – a disposable cup, some 3D printer waste, and a children’s toy.
They found the cup was most easily converted to methyl lactate at lower temperatures, but even the bulkier plastic in the children’s toy could be converted using higher temperatures.
“We were excited to see that it was possible to obtain high quantities of the green solvent regardless of samples’ characteristics due to colorants, additives, sizes and even molecular weight,” says Birmingham researcher and lead author Luis Román-Ramírez.
“The process we’ve designed has real potential to contribute to ongoing efforts to reduce the amount of plastic going into landfill or being incinerated creating new valuable products from waste,” notes Birmingham professor Joe Wood.
“Our technique breaks down the plastics into their chemical building blocks before ‘rebuilding’ them into a new product, so we can guarantee that the new product is of sufficiently high quality for use in other products and processes.”
The scientists contend that the chemical process has been tried up to 300 ml, and they plan to scale up the reactor further before it can be used in an industrial setting.
Image and content: Johannes P. Christo-Reuters/Eurekalert