Less than 10% of the plastic in use around the world is recycled. As to the rest, it is estimated that 100 million tons of plastic take up space in our oceans. Can we fix this? Researchers are looking into the concept of making plastic a renewable resource forever so that it never becomes a waste again.
Polypropylene, a thermoplastic polymer, is among the most-used types of plastic in the world, but only 1% is recycled. We find it everywhere, in bottle caps, carpets, luggage, phones, and computers. However, it retains contaminants, and its recycled state is limited. It can only be made into products that are black or gray. A car bumper, say, or a park bench.
Enter recycling technology developed by Procter & Gamble and carried forward by PureCycle Technologies Inc. That company holds a license for the only patented technology designed to change polypropylene waste into a “continuously renewable resource.” The purification process removes impurities, color, and odor from this kind of plastic waste. The result is ultra-pure, recycled plastic that can be used over and over in many different kinds of products.
The E-waste connection
A 2016 study estimated that the U.S. generates some 6.3 million tons of electronic waste annually, representing 14% of the global total. This is more than a little worrying. E-waste contains toxins that threaten water and soil when placed in landfills. But e-waste also contains reusable materials like gold, platinum, and—you guessed it—plastics. Researchers are looking for ways to improve the recycling process, make it more efficient, and, where possible, transform materials into a loop system so they can be used indefinitely.
Recovering the good stuff
Researchers at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center have been working on a method for the sustainable recycling of plastics in electronic products. To this end, they developed an environmentally friendly, non-toxic solvent capable of recovering thermoplastic polymers from plastics. The problem was that the plastics used in electronic devices are made from a polymer blend that is considerably more complex than those found in recyclables like milk jugs or soda bottles. But using the solvent they created, researchers are now able to recover polymers from e-waste in a safe and non-destructive way. Essentially, the solvent dissolves industrial polymers so as to permit the recovery of the plastic polymers. In addition, any residual waste can be converted into fuel oil.
Reducing environmental risks
E-waste, which, in addition to plastics, includes lead, mercury, cadmium, selenium, chromium, and arsenic, represents up to 70% of the toxic waste we generate today. This is why it is essential to recycle electronic devices like cell phones and laptops. By bringing them to Urban E-Recycling, you do your part to keep dangerous toxins out of landfills. The experts who specialize in dissembling electronics will take it from there. Eventually, the recovered metals and plastics will be transformed into new products, a journey that will one day result in their becoming renewable resources forever if the researchers have their way.