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Media Tip: Scientists enhance recyclability of post-consumer plastic

What happened:

Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Institute for Cooperative Upcycling of Plastics (iCOUP) have developed a new method for recycling high-density polyethylene (HDPE).

Using a novel catalytic approach, scientists at DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory and Cornell University converted post-consumer HDPE plastic into a fully recyclable and potentially biodegradable material with the same mechanical and thermal properties of the starting single-use plastic.

Why it matters:

HDPE is ubiquitous in single-use applications because it is strong, flexible, long-lasting and inexpensive. But the ways we produce and dispose of HDPE pose serious threats to our own health and that of our planet.

Many HDPE products are produced from fossil fuels, and most post-consumer HDPE is either incinerated, dumped in landfills or lost in the environment. When it is recycled with current methods, the quality of the material degrades.

This new approach could reduce carbon emission and pollution associated with HDPE by using waste plastic as untapped feedstock and transforming it into a new material that can be recycled repeatedly without loss of quality.

The details:

Current HDPE recycling approaches yield materials with inferior properties. The team’s alternative approach uses a series of catalysts to cleave the polymer chains into shorter pieces that contain reactive groups at the ends. The smaller pieces can then be put back together to form new products of equal value. The end groups have the added benefit of making the new plastic easier to decompose, both in the lab and in nature.

A paper on the results was published December 16 in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

This work was supported as part of iCOUP, an Energy Frontier Research Center funded by the DOE Office of Science, Basic Energy Sciences at Argonne and Ames Laboratory. This work made use of the NMR Facility at Cornell University, supported by the National Science Foundation.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://​ener​gy​.gov/​s​c​ience.