‘Upcyling’ Plastic Bottles Could Alleviate Global Trash Troubles

Plastic and other garbage littering a beach in Singapore. (Vaidehi Shah via Wikipedia)

(CN) – Scientists and researchers around the world strive to rid Earth’s oceans of the plague of plastic, with the latest effort from a team of scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory who found a process called ‘upcycling’ could help alleviate the problem.

In a study published in the journal Joule on Wednesday, the team unveiled a recycling process that transforms the typical single-use plastics found in everyday objects like beverage bottles, carpets and clothing into another item of greater value.

“Standard PET recycling today is essentially ‘downcycling,'” said study author Gregg Beckham, a scientist at the energy laboratory. “The process we came up with is a way to ‘upcycle’ PET into long-lifetime, high-value composite materials like those that would be used in car parts, wind turbine blades, surfboards, or snowboards.”

The common plastic is called polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and is lightweight, resistant to water and shatterproof, all of which make it attractive to manufacturers. While the material is recyclable, more than 26 million tons produced annually ends up in a landfill, on roadsides and in ecosystems or increasingly in swirling islands of plastic in the oceans. It can take hundreds of years to biodegrade.

When PET is recycled, it has a lower value and can only be repurposed once or twice.

If instead the material is recycled along with other materials like plant biomass, manufacturers can build a new material called fiber-reinforced plastic (FRP). FRPs are two to three times more valuable, meaning upcycling could have economic as well as ecological benefits.

“The idea is to develop technologies that would incentivize the economics of PET reclamation,” says Beckham. “That’s the real hope – to develop ‘second-life’ upcycling technologies that make single-use waste plastic valuable to reclaim. This, in turn, could help keep waste plastic out of the world’s oceans and out of landfills.”

But the development isn’t solely about dollars and cents or reducing litter in the ocean, as the scientists believe it would take 57 percent less energy to develop the stronger plastics from the weaker PET. Another result would be a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production of the composite plastic.

But work remains to be done. Further material testing is required to perfect the upcycling and scalability remains an unresolved issue.  

“The scale of PET production dwarfs that of composites manufacturing, so we need many more upcycling solutions to truly make a global impact on plastics reclamation through technologies like the one proposed in the current study,” said Nicholas Rorrer, an engineer at the energy laboratory and lead author of the study.

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