A team of Swedish scientists have found a new way to break down plastic so that it can be recycled into material the same quality as the original — a process they say could help shift the focus of the plastics industry to recycling and drastically reduce the amount of pollution that ends up in the world’s oceans.
The technique involves heating discarded plastic to around 850 degrees Celsius until it turns into a gas mixture. That mixture “can then be recycled at the molecular level to become new plastic material of virgin quality,” Henrik Thunman, an environmental scientist at Chalmers University of Technology who led the new research, said in a statement. “Circular use would help give used plastics a true value, and thus an economic impetus for collecting it anywhere on earth.”
Of the 350 million tons of plastic waste generated in 2015, 60 percent was sent to landfills and nearly 25 percent was incinerated for energy production or volume reduction. Just 14 percent was collected to be recycled and remade into new material. Of that, 8 percent was made into plastic of lower quality and just 2 percent was recycled into material of similar quality as the original. The rest was lost in the recycling process.
“We should not forget that plastic is a fantastic material,” Thunman said. “It gives us products that we could otherwise only dream of. The problem is that it is manufactured at such low cost, that it has been cheaper to produce new plastics from oil and fossil gas than from reusing plastic waste.”
Thunman and his colleagues argue their new process for breaking down plastic enables “real circularity.” Their findings were published recently in the journal Sustainable Materials and Technologies.