Scientists Develop Plastic That Can Be Recycled Repeatedly... But Does it Matter?

Wednesday, 08 May 2019 - 11:46AM
Technology
Science News
Wednesday, 08 May 2019 - 11:46AM
Scientists Develop Plastic That Can Be Recycled Repeatedly... But Does it Matter?
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Here's a fun fact that your great-great-great-great grandchildren will be choking on, assuming humanity survives that long: the average plastic bottle – you know, like the ones that you see littering your streets or stupidly thrown out on the beach – can take over 400 years to biodegrade, with some types of plastic taking up to 1000 years. That estimate, of course, is fairly meaningless when you consider the fact plastic continues to be produced in such quantities that the World Economic Forum estimates that the weight ratio of plastic garbage to fish in the ocean will be more than 1:1 by 2050. Oh, but there's recycling, you say. Right. There is. The problem is, in a consumer-centric culture of convenience and immediate gratification that lacks any serious sense of foresight, people simply opt to not recycle. Last year, National Geographic and Great Britain's Royal Statistical Society reported that of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic that has been produced since 1950, 6.3 billion metric tons have become plastic waste. Of that 6.3 billion metric tons, only 9% of it has been recycled. 


But now researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab have reported that they've developed a type of plastic, called PDK, that can be recycled over and over again, thus solving the problem of plastics that cannot be easily recycled. Their breakthrough was published in Nature Chemistry. According to a statement released by the lab, the researchers "designed a recyclable plastic that, like a Lego playset, can be disassembled into its constituent parts at the molecular level, and then reassembled into a different shape, texture, and color again and again without loss of performance or quality." As the study's lead author Peter Christensen points out "most plastics were never made to be recycled. But we have discovered a new way to assemble plastics that takes recycling into consideration from a molecular perspective."


While this is a fantastic technological breakthrough, it still does nothing to affect the billions of tons of plastic waste currently polluting the Earth, nor does it suggest that the technology will be adopted and scaled by manufacturers. Even if it does, recyclable products can't recycle themselves: it will still require effort – however minuscule – on the part of the consumers who use these products to effect any kind of change.
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