You may not realize it, but the idea that plastics are infinitely recyclable isn’t actually true… yet. The truth is that metal oxide or metal hydroxide catalysts are often used to make the polymers that form plastics and that metal in the polymer continues to degrade the polymer so it gets increasingly less strong when you recycle it. Often plastics can only be recycled once before they have to go to the landfill.
But researchers at I.B.M. and Stanford University said Tuesday that they have discovered a new way to make plastics that can be continuously recycled or developed for novel uses in health care and microelectronics. In a paper published in Macromolecules, a journal of the American Chemical Society, the California researchers describe how they substituted organic catalysts for those metal catalysts. Chandrasekhar Narayan, who leads I.B.M.’s science and technology team at its Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif explains:
“If you use organic reactants, you can make certain types of new polymers that are quite different and have other properties plastics don’t have.”
“Plastic bottles can be converted to higher value plastics like body panels for cars.”
Organic catalysts could create a new class of biodegradable plastics to replace those that are difficult to recycle, such as polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, used in a variety of consumer products, including plastic beverage bottles.
Bonus: Mr. Narayan said the organic catalysts are “dirt cheap” to make and that I.B.M. is in discussions with pharmaceutical companies and other potential partners about developing a pilot project that could be producing plastics within two years.
So that recycling symbol may end up being accurate after all.