New plant-based plastic allows near-perfect recycling

German scientists have developed two sustainable plastic alternatives that can be easily recycled.

A new paper published in Nature presents two environmentally-friendly replacements for plastic that have been derived from plant oils. Thanks to “breakpoints” engineered into their molecular structures, they can be chemically recycled with more ease and with ten times efficiency.

Most of the recycling that is done today is mechanical recycling where plastic is converted into little pellets that are then used to create new plastic. Chemical recycling instead breaks down the long polymer chain of plastic to its initial monomer components.

But the strong carbon-carbon bonds that make up plastic requires at least 600°C to break them back down into monomers. “To really break them down into small molecules needs high temperatures and is energy-intensive, and also the yields are not that good,” explains Stefan Mecking, the lead author of the study.

The plastic compounds created by Mecking and colleagues are more easily broken down and it is possible to regain 96% of the initial material.

The one disadvantage of these new compounds compared to polyethylene is the cost of production.

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