Scientists from Cornell University and the US Department of Energy’s Institute for Cooperative Upcycling of Plastics at the Argonne National Laboratory have developed a new method for recycling high-density polyethylene (HDPE).
Using a novel catalytic approach, the s converted post-consumer HDPE plastic into a fully recyclable and potentially biodegradable material with the same mechanical and thermal properties of the starting single-use plastic.
HDPE is ubiquitous in single-use applications because it’s strong, flexible, long-lasting and inexpensive. However, the ways in which we produce and dispose of HDPE pose serious threats to our own health and that of our planet.
Many HDPE products are produced from fossil fuels and most post-consumer HDPE is either incinerated, dumped in landfills or lost in the environment. When it’s recycled using current methods, the quality of the material degrades.
This new approach could reduce the carbon emissions and pollution associated with HDPE by using waste plastic as untapped feedstock and transforming it into a new material that can be recycled repeatedly without loss of quality.
Current HDPE recycling approaches yield materials with inferior properties. The team’s alternative approach uses a series of catalysts to cleave the polymer chains into shorter pieces that contain reactive groups at the ends. The smaller pieces can then be put back together to form new products of equal value. The end groups have the added benefit of making the new plastic easier to decompose, both in the lab and in nature.
The research has been published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.