International Trading of Polymers and Petrochemicals

Chemists develop radical way to make it easier, more profitable to recycle plastic

The chemistry of today's plastics makes most difficult to recycle. Even thermoplastics that can be melted down weaken with each re-use. Most recycled plastic is "downcycled" into lower quality products like carpet or polyester clothing, that may still end up in landfills.And that leads to the real barrier to recycling—economics. There's just no profit incentive.

But now a group of chemists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have turned the tables by discovering a method to break down plastics to create a new material that is stronger and tougher than the original—meaning it's potentially more valuable.

Carbon-hydrogen bonds are some of the strongest chemical bonds in nature. Their stability makes it difficult to turn natural products into medicines and challenging to recycle commodity plastics.

By selectively pulling hydrogen atoms from carbon-hydrogen bonds of polyolefin, the chemists came up with a way to expand the life of the single-use plastic into a high-value plastic known as an ionomer, a go-to material used in a wide variety of food packaging.

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