For years, the conundrum of what to do with our waste plastics has been a worldwide issue despite high recycling levels in businesses such as ours. The very features that make plastics an essential part of our everyday lives are the very same ones that make them difficult to dispose of and as a result, waste plastics are clogging up seas and landfill sites.
What’s the Problem?
Polyethylene, our most frequently used plastic, is becoming increasingly difficult to deal with as the industrial world grows and usage increases. According to the website Science Alert, by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans, with the rest being sent to increasingly dangerous landfill sites around the world.
So why don’t we just recycle it? The very features that make plastic such an attractive commodity are the very features that make it extremely difficult to recycle. Polyethylene is made from fossil fuels so in theory should be fairly easy to convert back into a usable commodity. But it is also an extremely stable chemical compound, meaning it takes a huge amount of energy to break it up and form it into something new.
Plastics such as polyethylene need to be heated to temperatures of up to 400 degrees Celsius to begin to break down, but even then the resulting solution is rarely pure enough to effectively re-use.
What’s the Solution?
Scientists from the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry have recently been working on a process that would turn these plastics into something useful by breaking their chain of carbon and hydrogen atoms (which are extremely strong) into shorter pieces that can be used to make other compounds.
This process means that less heat has to be used, around 150 degrees Celsius and the result is something that can easily be re-used – Diesel fuel.
Although in its early days, this research shows the possibilities of solving the increasing environmental problem caused by plastic disposal. And although it isn’t as good as recycling plastics into future generations of plastics, it does give a far more sustainable way to deal with our plastic waste.