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Just 10% of U.S. plastic gets recycled. A new kind of plastic could change that

Just 10% of U.S. plastic gets recycled. A new kind of plastic could change that
Science
Most plastics have a chemical history that makes starting a new life a challenge. The dyes and flame retardants that make them perfect for say, a couch cushion or a bottle of detergent, make them tough to transform into a desirable end productone of the reasons . Now, researchers have created a plastic with a special chemical bond that helps it separate out from those additives, turning it back into a pure, valuable product that can be reused again and again.

To make the new material, researchers tweaked a type of vitrimer, a glasslike plastic developed in 2011, by adding molecules that change the chemical bonds holding it together. These new bonds, called dynamic covalent diketoenamine bonds, require less energy to break than those in traditional plastics.

As a result, the new plastic can be broken down into its constituent parts using just a solution of water and a strong acid at room temperature, the researchers report today in

Nature Chemistry

. The process doesnt require a catalyst to set off the reaction, either, making it easy to collect high-quality recycled plastic from the resulting slurry. But the plastic isnt at risk of falling apart ahead of scheduleresearchers say the powerful acid required to break it down isnt something most users are likely to encounter.

Traditional recycling methods produce dirty gray pellets (known as nurdles) that few manufacturers want to use, but this chemical recycling process creates plastic on par with brand new material. Whats more, the new method doesnt require extra sorting. To demonstrate, the team mixed their material with shards of CD cases, plastic straws, and similar waste. Even in the presence of these other plastics, the new materials molecules separated out.

The next big question is whether manufacturers will use it and recycling plants will accept it. Because the new plastics byproducts are more valuableand because recycling plants likely wouldnt need a total overhaul to process it, this sustainable plastic could one day shift the global economics of plastic recycling.
Read more on sciencemag.org
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