Plastic has been, undeniably, a boon to the modern world, yet the same cannot be said with regards to its impact on the natural environment – plastics can take centuries to fully degrade, and small bits of decomposing synthetic materials are often ingested by wild animals.
According to some experts, by 2050 there will more plastic in the sea than fish.
Thankfully, this need not be a permanent concern – a group of chemists from the Colorado State University have recently developed a new type of plastic which could theoretically be recycled for an indefinite number of times.
Provided “hot enough conditions, or at lower temperatures in the presence of a zinc chloride catalyst”, the compound can be returned to its starting monomers in a matter of minutes and reused to make new products without any need for purification.
Importantly, the process of breaking the material down into its constituent molecules does not require any toxic chemicals or intensive lab procedures, which means it could very well become an industry standard in the years to come.
Before that happens, however, much work still needs to be done with regards to patents and the production processes developed by the researchers.
A paper detailing the process of achieving the new synthetic polymer has been published in the journal Science.
Furthermore, the material, created by Professor Eugene Chen and his team, has many of the same characteristics as everyday plastics, including strength, durability and heat resistance.
“The polymers can be chemically recycled and reused, in principle, infinitely,” said Professor Chen. “It would be our dream to see this chemically recyclable polymer technology materialise in the marketplace.”
Employing similar closed-loop approaches will hopefully lead to a “circular materials economy” where used materials are immediately recycled and therefore never end up in the landfill.
The team is now working on optimising the monomer synthesis process and developing new, even more cost-effective techniques for achieving similar polymers.