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Can Plant-Based Plastics Be Completely Recycled?

The creation of plastic has both negative and positive effects on our lives. While plastic has helped in the innovation of several technologies, it does create a nightmare for the environment. With this problem at hand, scientists work hard in finding a way to create plastic that can be completely recycled to reduce waste harming our environment.

Yes, plant-based plastics can be recycled. Scientists have developed two plant-based plastic alternatives. Through a chemical process instead of a mechanical one, 96% of the material can be recovered to be reused.

The History of Plastic

The word plastic translates to the phrase pliable and easily shaped. Only recently did the term change to categorize polymers.

Over the past century, people have learned how to develop synthetic polymers using carbon that comes from petroleum and other fossil fuels. These polymers were made into strong polymers that were also lightweight and flexible.

The first synthetic polymer was invented by John Wesley Hyatt in 1869. This was at a time when the supply of ivory was strained due to the over-poaching of elephants. A company offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could invent an alternative. Needless to say, his discovery was revolutionary. It led to several innovations we use everyday.

The creation of plastic led to the development and innovation of several other materials. It is inexpensive and easily obtainable. However, the harm it causes to the environment is a cause for concern. (Source: Science History)

Can You Fully Recycle Regular Plastic?

There is a common misconception that all plastics are recyclable. Plastic bags, straws, coffee cups, and similar materials are not recyclable. The reason for this is based on the market and the government. If there is a demand, there will be companies that will recycle. Without a demand, recycling the materials will be completely useless. (Source: National Geographic)

Plant-Based Plastics

German scientists have created two sustainable alternatives to high-density polyethylene. Right now, plastic is broken down mechanically. In this process plastic is sorted, sliced into smaller pieces, and reused to make a new plastic materials.

With chemically recycling the plant-based plastics easily break down thanks to engineered molecular structures. In chemical recycling, the use of heat or solvents are essential. Plant oils make new plastics, these are low-waste, and environmentally friendly. According to Stefan Mecking – the lead scientist of the study, one of the obstacles in chemical recycling is developing the technology for it.

Polyethylene, the most common kind of plastic, requires at least 600 degrees Celsius to break those bonds to retrieve the monomers, and is chemically recycled at a rate lower than 10%. Stability of the hydrocarbon chains is rather a problem in that case. To really break them down into small molecules needs high temperatures and is energy intensive, and also the yields are not that good.

Stefan Mecking

(Source: Academic Times)

Progress on the Plant-Based Plastic

The research is still ongoing. The team is currently incorporating the use of 3D printers in developing new material with the recycled plastics they get from chemically recycling. (Source: Academic Times)

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