A team at Cornell University is aiming to revolutionize recycling by changing the chemical makeup of plastic. Geoffery Coates, professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, and his team worked with a group from the University of Minnesota to create a new polymer, which essentially leads to a tougher, more sustainable material.
Of the 78 million tons of plastic used for packaging annually, only 2% actually gets recycled and reused in a similar manner, according to the Ellen MacAurthur Foundation. The vast majority of these materials end up elsewhere. Nearly one-third seeps back into the environment, 14% is used for waste incineration and energy recovery, and 40% is thrown away as trash in landfills.
Due to the nature of the plastic, the packaging materials aren’t able to be re-purposed, according to an article by the Cornell Chronicle. For example, two of the materials, polyethylene and polypropylene, which make up two-thirds of plastics worldwide, cannot be blended together because of their differing chemical structures. This means they cannot be made into something new and often end up in the garbage.
By adding a small dose of this polymer to the previously incompatible plastics, however, they can be blended together and made into something new – with a stronger material. This innovation, Coates said to the Cornell Chronicle, could create a vast reduction in the demand for production materials.
“If you could make a milk jug with 30 percent less material because it’s mechanically better, think of the sustainability of that,” he said. “You’re using less plastic, less oil, you have less stuff to recycle, you have a lighter product that uses less fossil fuel to move it.”
As it stands, sustainable waste management is not on the radar of most Americans. With the average person in the U.S. throwing out 600 times his or her body weight in garbage, recycling has proved its benefits. For example, recycling one ton of cardboard collectively could save nine cubic yards of space in a landfill.
An increase in recycling could also make its mark financially. While it costs $50 to send one ton of garbage to a landfill, that amount drops to $30 for recycling the same amount of material.
Coates and his team are taking a step in the direction of simplified recycling practices. The project paper was published on February 23 in Science.