Is This New Polymer Additive the Answer to Plastics Recycling Challenges?

Here’s a question for you…

What percentage of the 78 million tons of plastic used annually for packaging – such as a 2-liter bottle – actually gets recycled and reused in a similar way?

The answer is- just 2%!

Statistics indicate about a third is leaked into the environment, around 14 percent is used in incineration and/or energy recovery, and a whopping 40 percent winds up in landfills.

This is because recycling plastics is not an easy process. The problem lies in the chemical makeup of the two major types of plastics being made. While polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP) account for two-thirds of all plastics made, they have different chemical structures and thus cannot be repurposed together. No one has come up with a way to efficiently meld these two materials into one in the 60 years they have been in use.

A new polymer could solve the recycling dilemma.

Geoffry Coates, Tisch University professor of chemistry and chemical biology heads up a lab of scientists who have recently collaborated with the University of Minnesota to develop a multiblock polymer that, when added in small measure to a mix of the two otherwise incompatible materials, create a new and mechanically tough polymer.

His group has, in effect, achieved what scientists have been trying to accomplish for years. In addition, the new polymer has strength superior to diblock (two-block) polymers. Previous experiments using other types of polymers only resulted in a softer material without the nice plastic properties expected. The new polymer that Coates’ team developed allows for the same super-great plastics properties with only a 1 percent additive of the new polymer.

The polymer makes a stronger material resulting in less plastic needed.

It produces a new, mechanically tough polymer blend that can result in using 30 percent less material because it’s mechanically better. And that’s the big gain when it comes to recycling.

“You’re using less plastic, less oil, you have less stuff to recycle, you have a lighter product that uses less fossil fuel to move it”, said Coates.

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