Rebuilding Plastic

Large pile of Legos

Is chemistry, ooh. . . as easy as playing with Legos?!

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

Plastic bags, soda bottles, candy wrappers … Polyethylene (PE) is EVERYWHERE! It’s made from petrochemicals and recycling it usually requires high temperatures — which gobble up energy! Is there a better way? 

Stefan Mecking from the University of Konstanz in Germany and his team are investigating a potential PE replacement, called “PE-like plastic”. PE-like plastic is made from renewable sources, such as plant oils. But is it recyclable? 

The researchers mixed the plastic with an environmentally benign chemical solution and heated it up. The plastic broke down into tiny building blocks — like microscopic Legos! The researchers then purified these blocks and rebuilt the plastic.  

Results? The team was able to recover around 96% of the original plastic! The researchers hope this could lead to more green and efficient plastics recycling.

I’D love to make soda bottles into a plastic bag and pop to the grocery … To buy MORE soda! Diet, of course.

Reference: Häußler, M., Eck, M., Rothauer, D., & Mecking, S. (2021). Closed-loop recycling of polyethylene-like materials. Nature, 590(7846), 423–427.