Infinitely recyclable plastics are here, and our planet has hope

The world’s first fully synthetic plastic, Bakelite, was invented in 1907. Only a hundred-something years later, the plastics are, quite literally, covering the planet. They’re the packaging of your food. They protect your phone, fill your house with everything from furniture to garbage and fill the oceans, too. The situation is out of hand, and the fact that scientists have just found plastics even in sea turtles’ muscles is one of those sad reminders that enough is enough. The good news is, a realistic solution could finally be here. A team at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) has just proved that infinitely recyclable plastic material called poly(diketoenamine), or PDK, is a commercially viable alternative to traditional plastics. Could it finally be the game-changer? 

The trouble with plastics

Individuals and countries are (slowly) turning to circular principles to save our planet. Ideally, the goal is to keep resources in the loop: reuse them, repair them or remanufacture them. No, recycling is not on the list. While it’s certainly much better than nothing, it’s highly ineffective in its current form.

When you recycle polymers repeatedly, their quality continuously degrades, and so virgin plastics are necessary for each cycle. That means even today’s recycled products mostly include brand new plastics. Moreover, the percentage of recycled plastics is shockingly small. For example, in 2018, the US recycled only 8.7% of plastic garbage. We can’t recycle dirty packaging. Bags, most coffee cups, or straws are all lost causes, too. Yet, no material until now could challenge the lightweight, cheap, durable plastics. 

Why is PDK different than other plastics alternatives?

PDKs have been around for a while, but their commercial potential has not yet been explored. A new report explains that since the PDKs life cycle lasts forever, taking on a new shape in each new “life”, their widespread adoption makes financial sense and can completely disrupt the industry. 

“Plastics were never designed to be recycled. The need to do so was recognized long afterward,” outlines Nemi Vora, one of the report’s authors. “But driving sustainability is the heart of this project. PDKs were designed to be recycled from the get-go, and since the beginning, the team has been working to refine the production and recycling processes for PDK so that the material could be inexpensive and easy enough to be deployed at commercial scales in anything from packaging to cars,” she added. 

Why it could actually work

In the end, it’s always about the money. Replacing something as crucial as plastics has to be cheap, easy, and convenient. Without an attractive incentive, nothing will change. 

“We’re talking about materials that are basically not recycled,” said Corinne Scown, staff scientist and deputy division director at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. “So, in terms of appealing to manufacturers, PDKs aren’t competing with recycled plastic – they have to compete with virgin resin. And we were really pleased to see how cheap and how efficient it will be to recycle the material.”

The report modeled what would regular re(use) of PDKs look like, and the results give humanity some hope. “The cost and the greenhouse gas emissions associated with continuing to recycle it back to monomers and make new products could be lower than, or at least on par with, many conventional polymers,” said Scown. 

The report digs deep into the finances and volumes needed to make the switch from plastics to a PDK-based future happen. The researchers openly admit that to pioneer the change would take significant effort and resources. But the big picture does lean towards PDKs. To begin with, the new material would be a perfect fit for products customers can easily return. And if PDKs become widespread, the initially expensive process of separating them from the general waste in order to recycle would start making financial sense. 

From plastics to PDK: where to begin?

Fast Company reports that the researchers are already on the lookout for private companies to test their hypotheses. They are fully aware that not all products can switch to infinitely recyclable plastics tomorrow. Single-use plastics, for example, would, unfortunately, be too expensive as PDKs. However, a longer-lasting product that only partially uses plastics would hit the sweet spot. For example, you could return a phone instead of throwing it out. Then the manufacturer can repurpose the PDK parts over and over. 

Despite the good news, we shouldn’t succumb to the illusion that we will solve the plastics crisis tomorrow. But PDKs give us hope that there is a way out from the plastic jungle we have built.

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