Team Develops Low-Cost Method to Upcycle the Most Common Plastic

Each year, the petrochemistry industry produces above 88 million tons of polyethylene.
Utku Kucukduner

Each year, the petrochemistry industry produces above 88 million tons of polyethylene, it is simply the most popular kind of plastic in the world. Now, a team of scientists figured out a way to upcycle it. And it can possibly help address the growing plastic pollution crisis.


Each of us uses polyethylene products almost every day. It's in the food packaging, plastic packs, electrical wires (the insulating parts), and commercial piping. The sad part is that this common plastic is criminally under recycled.

We end up filling landfills with it, even drop it into the ocean, both of which take a lot of time to accept it into its system. Oh, and we incinerate some of it, which comes back to haunt us as toxic fumes, poisoning the life on Earth.

In their study, the team figured out a way to speed up this process, breaking polyethylene down into alkylaromatic molecules. These alkylaromatic molecules are utilized in a number of other products like refrigeration fluids, machinery lubricants, laundry detergents, and cosmetics surfactants

To be fair, this is not the first time scientists figured out a way to break down polyethylene. But the widespread method we have involves heating the plastic up to 983-1832 degrees F (500-1000 degrees C) and adding solvents along with hydrogen (which speeds up the process). The new method; however, doesn't require this many prerequisites.

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Simply a temperature around 570 degrees F (300 degrees C) along with platinum with aluminum oxide as a catalyst does the job. Since the process throws less energy at the plastic, the team is able to acquire intact alkylaromatic molecules.

To recap, the process demands less energy in the form of heating, which translates as good news for the environment and the utilities. Yet, the technique is not ready to be brought up to scale yet. Perhaps one day, we will see recycling facilities operate with this method.

The Research is published in Science