Scientists create emissions-free method for recycling plastics

Environmentalists, however, argue that the process may not be a good thing.
Loukia Papadopoulos
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Plastics everywhere need to be recycled.


University of Colorado researchers have conceived of a method of making useful materials out of some of the plastics that are inundating landfills everywhere, according to a report by the Colorado Sun published on Friday.

The novel process uses ethanol to break down plastics to their smallest molecules. Those molecules are then used as starting blocks to make a new plastic product equally as useful and durable as the recycled one.

The end result is a series of polycyanurate networks which have been used for decades in electronic devices, automobiles, circuit boards, the space industry and more. But some environmentalists argue that this may not be the best thing.

Using too much plastic

The process, they say, will lead to more use of plastic in the first place which is something that should be reduced. Kate Bailey, the strategic advisor at the Boulder nonprofit Eco-Cycle, told the Colorado Sun, that this innovation may even encourage more plastics made from petroleum products.

“Where is the role for new technologies? What type of plastics should it be used for? When is it the right solution? And when are there other alternatives that make a lot more sense?” Bailey said. 

Scientists create emissions-free method for recycling plastics
Plastics everywhere need to be recycled.

Meanwhile, Danny Katz, executive director of Colorado Public Interest Research Group, also added to the Colorado Sun that reduction of the use of plastics is key and expressed doubt over how clean the new process may be.

“We have way better alternatives, way better options. The first one is just reducing,” Katz said. “If you talk to anybody, they would say it is ridiculous how much plastic comes with the products that we buy every single day. We’re drowning in plastic.”

A safer and cleaner option

Wei Zhang, chair of CU’s chemistry department and lead researcher on the project, argues that his option is providing a much safer and cleaner option to pyrolysis, another form of breaking down plastics. Pyrolysis is an energy-intensive, high-emission-emitting process responsible for plenty of pollution. As such, he argues that his invention is a far greater option.

He explains that his method does not use high temperatures or generate any harmful emissions. He also says it has the potential to transition to industrial setups easily due to its mild and easily replicable conditions. 

Since his process produces the starting materials for new products he argues that no petroleum byproducts are needed. His invention creates a closed loop that is eco-friendly and practical.

“You truly can do the closed loop and reuse everything without repeatedly using petroleum, because it’s limited and it’s better for the environment,” Zhang said. “That is one future I’m dreaming of, and it’s possible.”

The process isn’t ready for large-scale manufacturing yet but that does not mean it does not offer a viable alternative to current methods of recycling plastic. It could if applied properly revolutionize the industry.

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