ACS News Service Weekly PressPac: June 20, 2018

Rethinking recycling

“Recycling needs a revamp”
“Chemistry may have solutions to our plastic trash problem”
“Plastics recycling with microbes and worms is further away than people think”
Chemical & Engineering News

Recycling plastic water bottles has never been more convenient, with bins available almost everywhere. Although Americans are recycling in record numbers, millions of tons of plastic trash continue to accumulate in the environment. Solving this problem will require new solutions for breaking plastics down and reusing them, according to a three-part cover story inChemical & Engineering News (C&EN), the weekly news magazine of the American Chemical Society.

Globally, only about 14 percent of plastic packaging is collected for recycling, writes Assistant Editor Sam Lemonick. And of the plastic that does get recycled, most ends up in a lower-quality product than the starting material. Current recycling technology mechanically shreds, melts and reforms plastic, which partially degrades the polymers and reduces quality. Scientists are trying to develop new recycling methods that use chemical or biological approaches.

On the chemical side, some researchers are identifying new reactions to break down plastics to make the building blocks for new polymers and other high-value products. Others are working on making new types of plastics that degrade easily, writes Lemonick. According to Senior Correspondent Carmen Drahl, still others are looking at biological approaches, such as plastic-munching microbes and worms. Although some media outlets have exaggerated the usefulness of these organisms – most are very slow, inefficient and degrade only the most fragile plastics – researchers are making progress in this field. However, they face many challenges, such as identifying the critters’ enzymes that break down plastic, producing large quantities, and making them faster and more efficient through biotechnology.

Note: ACS does not conduct research, but publishes and publicizes peer-reviewed scientific studies.