Plastics aren’t recycled nearly as much as we’d like them to be, but a team from Berkeley Lab has developed a method to hopefully make that process easier. In a recently published study, these researches describe a new type of plastic that can be broken down at the molecular level to create new plastic without any deterioration in quality. The goal is to improve the recycling process so that fewer plastics end up in landfills or oceans.
“Most plastics were never made to be recycled,” said lead author Peter Christensen, a postdoctoral researcher at Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Foundry, in a statement. “But we have discovered a new way to assemble plastics that takes recycling into consideration from a molecular perspective.”
Every plastic is made up of polymers, large molecules that are made up of smaller compounds called monomers. As the researchers noted in a press release, the traditional method of making plastic involves adding chemicals that stick to the monomers and are hard to remove during the recycling process. As a result, bits of plastics with different chemical compositions get all mixed up, and it’s tough to know what sort of a plastic the recycling process will ultimately spit out. Often, the plastic won’t be as durable in its next life.
The new plastic this team has cooked up—what they’re calling called polydiketoenamine, or PDK—could make recycling more appealing because all that’s needed is some acid to separate its chemical additives from the monomers. Then it’s possible to create a new plastic item with the same integrity as the original. The researchers’ hope is that this new plastic material could come to replace various plastics that can’t be recycled currently because of how they’re created: those in shoes or phone cases, for instance.
Right now, this plastic only exists in the lab. You won’t be able to buy a PDK phone case just yet. Right now, the team is working on making the material greener by incorporating plant-based materials.
“This is an exciting time to start thinking about how to design both materials and recycling facilities to enable circular plastics,” Brett Helms, a researcher in Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Foundry, said in a statement.
Not only is it exciting; it’s necessary. Plastics are now everywhere, from the bottom of the ocean to remote mountaintops. We don’t yet know what this means for our health, but we know that they’re killing our birds and marine life that mistake them for food. And right now, wildlife needs all the help it can get.