When plastics came onto the scene about seventy years ago, little, if any, thought was given to the implications of their durability and the fact that they can take centuries to decompose. Now, after several decades during which plastics have become more diverse and easier to manufacture, the planet is saddled with some 8.3 billion tons of the stuff — comprising almost every bit of plastic ever produced — while lacking either technology or incentives to shrink the growing pile. It is, quite simply, cheaper and easier to throw plastic away than to recycle it.
UC Santa Barbara researchers Susannah Scott and Mahdi Abu-Omar are poised to shift this decades-old paradigm. They have developed a one-pot, low-temperature catalytic method that upcycles polyethylene — a polymer that is found in about a third of all plastics produced, with a global value of about $200 billion annually — into high-value alkylaromatic molecules that are the basis of many industrial chemicals and consumer products. Adding value to what would otherwise become trash could make plastic-waste recycling a more attractive, more practical pursuit with an environmentally beneficial outcome.
“Here’s a potential solution; this is a demonstration of what can be done,” said Scott, who with her colleagues published their research in the journal Science. Their effort, she said, is one of an increasing number of possible measures that can be taken to turn plastic’s linear, wasteful economy into a more sustainable, circular one.