A Way to Recycle Every Bit of Plastic

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After the holiday gift-giving binge, there tends to be a big pile, a sad pile of plastic packaging, wrapping, containers, and unnecessary parts that are too iffy for the recycling bin. Even if you toss it in, there's no guarantee it will get recycled. Now engineers in the United Kingdom have new tech that can even turn the toughest plastic blends into reusable materials.

Plastic recycling is intense. There are codes, there are sorting bins, there are variations from municipality to municipality. Even the most eco-conscious recycler has experienced a guilty trash can moment. Plus, plastic is usually downcycled, meaning a plastic bottle can't easily be recycled into an identical plastic bottle.

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True plastic recycling is the holy grail for researchers and engineers, who have finally been making some progress in the lab. A team of engineers at the University of Warwick in Coventry, United Kingdom, that developed a seemingly magical process intended to truly recycle 100 percent of plastic waste.

Researchers led by engineering professor Jan Baeyens made a unit that heats up the plastic to decompose it without oxygen in a "fluidized bed reactor," which is a special device used for multiphase chemical reactions. A multi-tasking reactor is crucial because it meant that the researchers could toss a bunch of different kinds of plastics into it, and have it produce useful materials.

During initial testing, the team was able to break the plastic mixes down into their basic ingredients for reclamation. They were able to pull out carbon and wax as well as original monomers including styrene which goes into making products like yogurt containers. From the sounds of the process, it's like turning lead (plastic waste) into gold (valuable industrial liquids and solids).

The Brits plan to commercialize their process through the university's tech transfer group, Warwick Ventures. According to the university, the engineers think waste disposal companies and municipalities will be interested in using the technology on a larger scale. If the process really does work as well as they say, that would be one super duper holiday gift for guilt-ridden environmentalists. No extra packaging required.

Photo: University of Warwick engineering professor Jan Baeyens has tech to turn even the toughest-to-recycle plastic into reusable material. Credit: University of Warwick