Advancing Plastics Recycling with New Technologies February 2018
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More plastics companies are investing in the development of technologies for recycling engineering polymers. In a November 2017 scientific perspective, "The future of plastics recycling," Jeannette Garcia and Megan Robertson, researchers at IBM Almaden Research Center and the University of Houston, respectively, emphasize the importance of ongoing research in plastics recycling, saying that the development of new technologies could increase the amount of plastic waste that can undergo recycling successfully.
According to the online article "Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made" in Science Advances, recycling rates in 2017 for plastic were 30% in Europe, 25% in China, and 9% in the United States. The industry and consumers still have some way to go in recycling plastics. Currently available end-of-life treatment options for plastic waste have limitations, such as capital and time-intensive sorting technologies, low-quality recovered materials, and a limited list of plastics that can undergo recycling.
Garcia and Robertson report that new strategies could involve developing new catalysts to improve the efficiency and selectivity of chemical recycling; designing novel compatibilizers to minimize the need for sorting plastic waste; recycling mixed plastics and composites, thermosets, and elastomers in one waste stream; and developing novel polymers that are easy to recycle.
Increasing the recycling rate of plastics is not easy. New technologies are slow to progress from design to implementation on a large scale. Arguably, some technologies are impractical on the large scale. For example, currently available compatibilizers are custom made for specific waste compositions. In addition, low-energy mechanical separation of mixed materials such as metals, composites, and plastics is still a long way from industrial-scale use. And preserving the mechanical properties of plastics after repeated use-and-recycle cycles still presents challenges to researchers. In an increasingly environment-focused plastics market, new legislation that favors sustainability and consumers' demand for low-carbon products are likely and may encourage producers to develop technologies that promote waste prevention and to design products that are easy to collect and recycle.
Plastics companies must improve recycling technologies beyond the current level or lose their competitive edge in a world that is increasingly striving to achieve a circular economy. Manufacturers, suppliers, sorters, and recyclers will have little choice but to develop novel recycling practices or improve currently available technologies for recycling existing plastics. However, investments in recycling technologies may be capital intensive. Companies that have the extra capital for such developments are mostly major players, placing smaller organizations at a heavy disadvantage. Nevertheless, collaboration between small industry players, researchers, and government bodies may support the development and adoption of novel technologies for plastics recycling. If organizations implement such technologies, the recycling rate of plastics will increase exponentially.