Researchers have developed a recycling method for plastic that replaces fossil raw materials and replaces them with carbon atoms from mixed waste. The new strategy could help eliminate the climate impact of plastic and may even get rid of some carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Source: Chalmers University of Technology/Youtube

A team of researchers at the Chalmers University of Technology in Swedenhypothesized that carbon atoms in plastic waste could be an untapped resource that is currently incinerated or ends up in landfills. The study, published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, found that using thermochemical technologies, this wasted carbon would be used as a raw material to produce plastics instead of those created with fossil fuels.

“While fossil fuel use is the main cause of anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and a transition away from the use of such fuels is essential to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5 [degrees celsius], the production and use of materials such as plastics, cement and steel entail significant GHG emissions,” researchers explained.

The researchers think that enough of these atoms already exist to meet the plastic production need around the world. The atoms can be harvested from waste with or without food residue as well, meaning we could recycle more plastic.

“If the process is powered by renewable energy, we also get plastic products with more than 95 percent lower climate impact than those produced today, which effectively means negative emissions for the entire system,” said co-author Henrik Thunman.

For this method, carbon atoms are heated to 600 to 800 degrees celsius as they convert the material to gas. Then, hydrogen is added to replace the building blocks of plastics. This process can also be run by renewable sources like solar, wind, or hydropower, making the process energy efficient. They also believe they would harvest the excess heat to offset heat production from waste incineration. This would eliminate carbon dioxide emissions resulting from energy recovery. The researchers are still working to ensure that the gas can be used and converted in the same factories that are currently producing plastic.

“Our goal is to create a circular economy for plastics. Our plastic products are key to the transformation to a sustainable society, so it’s important for us to support research like this. We already have projects that create circularity for our plastic products, but more solutions are needed. Therefore, we are pleased with these excellent results, which can help bring us a step closer to our goal,” says Anders Fröberg, CEO of Borealis AB.

Globally, we produce 300 million tons of plastic every year, 78 percent of which is NOT reclaimed or recycled. Around  8.8 million tons of plastic get dumped into the oceans every year! 700 marine animals are faced with extinction due to the threat that plastic poses to them in the form of entanglement, pollution, and ingestion. 50 percent of sea turtles have plastic in their stomachs. By 2050, 99 percent of all seabird species will have ingested plastic waste. According to a study by the World Economic Forum, there will be one tonne of plastic for every three tonnes of fish by 2025, and if things go on business as usual, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050.

Read more about how companies like Facebook, Tupperware, Google, Dove,  Budweiser, Carlsberg, and FIJI Water are working towards reducing plastic pollution. Places around the world like Tel Aviv, California, Baltimore, Scotland, and many more are banning various single-use plastics, and others are coming up with creative ways to recycle and use plastic waste.

There are products you may be using or habits you may have that contribute to plastic pollution. Learn more about how the use of Teabags, Cotton Swabs, Laundry, Contact Lenses, Glitter, and Sheet Masks pollute our oceans so you can make more informed decisions going forward. There are also numerous simple actions and switches that can help cut plastic out of our lives including, making your own cosmetics, shampoo, toothpaste, soap, household cleaners, using mason jars, reusable bags/bottles/straws, and avoiding microbeads!

To learn more about the impact of plastic waste, please read the articles below: 

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