This Startup's Simple Chemical Process Could Break Down the Plastics We Can't Recycle

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When most people think of plastic taking up space in landfills for centuries, they might picture PET, the plastic used to make water bottles. But the thin film plastic used for bags and packaging is far more abundant, and it's much more likely to get contaminated with food and oils, making it harder to salvage for recycling. Now a startup called BioCellection says it's found a way to get more use out of these plastics by melting them down into organic liquids, WIRED reports.

Before most plastic can be recycled, it first needs to be cleaned. In areas with high quality standards, it's not unusual for especially dirty plastics to be thrown away altogether.

The method developed by BioCellection works on film plastic no matter how greasy or sticky it is. As Miranda Wang, one of the company's co-founders, tells WIRED, the plastic just needs to be shredded, loaded into a glass container, and soaked in a clear liquid catalyst at 248°F for the chemical reaction to take place. In the presence of the catalyst, the polymer chains in the plastic break down into many different compounds with two to seven carbons per chain link. The result isn't just melted plastic—it's organic liquids that can be repurposed to make new materials. Adipic acid, one of the resulting compounds, can be used to manufacture nylon clothing and car parts.

As the world's plastic waste continues to pile up, scientists are scrambling for new ways to break it down. In 2016, Japanese scientists discovered a type of bacteria that munches on non-biodegradable plastic, and two years later another team accidentally engineered that same bacteria to be more efficient. BioCellection initially turned to plastic-eating bacteria when looking for ways to break down plastic film, but soon found that the microbes were much more interested in the food contamination. The liquid catalyst presented a way around this.

The new plastic-degrading process isn't ready to be applied on a large scale, but BioCellection plans to have a machine capable of breaking down 5 metric tons of plastic a day ready by 2019. The team is also interested in expanding the method to other materials like rigid polyethylene plastics.

[h/t WIRED]