New way of recycling plant-based plastics instead of letting them rot in landfill

Chemical recycling method breaks down plastics into their original building blocks, potentially allowing them to be recycled repeatedly without losing quality.

Scientists from the Universities of Bath and Birmingham have developed a new way of chemical recycling – converting plastics back into their constituent chemical molecules – so that they can be used to make new plastics of the same quality as the original.

The team’s method, published in ChemSusChem, uses lower temperatures and more environmentally-friendly catalysts than previous methods.

The researchers recycled plant-based PLA, which is made from starch or crop waste instead of petrochemicals, and is used in “biodegradable” food packaging and disposable cutlery and cups. PLA isn’t currently recycled because it’s not used widely yet, however with growing awareness of plastic pollution, the demand from consumers for recyclable packaging is growing.
The team has also started trialling a similar process for recycling PET, which is used for drinks bottles.

So far, the technology has only been demonstrated on a small scale, however collaborators at the University of Birmingham are now working to scale up the system to produce larger quantities of starting chemicals.

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