Human beings have managed to accumulate so much plastic trash that it’s daunting to think about what could be done with the tons upon tons of nonbiodegradable waste. And as much as we are trying to scale back our dependence on single-use plastics, we continue to add to the global plastic trash hoard. Events like the COVID-19 pandemic only served to expand their use for personal protective equipment and disposable and take-away packaging.
But, for researchers at UC Santa Barbara, one person’s single-use packaging is another person’s useful raw material. In a paper published in the journal Chem, they explain how they have reimagined the value of single-use plastics, with improvements to an innovative process that can turn polyolefins, the most common type of polymer in single-use packaging, into valuable alkylaromatics — molecules that underlie surfactants, the active components of detergents and other useful chemicals.
“If we make these surfactants from fossil fuels now and you could make them from waste plastics, then you are not using fossil fuels to make surfactants anymore, and you’re getting another use out of the carbon that went into the plastics,” said chemical engineering professor Susannah Scott, who holds UCSB’s Mellichamp Chair in Sustainable Catalytic Processing. Instead of burning them or burying them in landfills — practices that represent the major ways we currently deal with plastic waste — plastics are repurposed in a method that shortcuts conventional “dirty” processes for making surfactants while giving single-use plastics one more shot at usefulness.