Infinitely Recyclable Plastic

Dr. Gary O’Bireck

In an earlier blog, I discussed National Geographic’s new GeoChallenge program, which is designed to make kids and families more aware of the pollution abuses single-use plastics have on our oceans and their aquatic inhabitants. Another step towards reducing this scourge has been invented by a team of chemists at Colorado State University. According to Josh Gabbatiss, Science Correspondent for the Independent, these scientists have invented a plastic polymer material that can be recycled infinitely. Created by Professor Eugene Chen and his team, this new material has many of the same features as everyday plastics, including the strength, durability and heat resistance of which we have become accustomed. However, unlike conventional plastics, this new recyclable polymer can easily be converted back to the molecules that constituted its initial composition. In a process known as chemical recycling, toxic chemicals or intensive lab procedures are not required, which makes complete industrialization quite possible. The widespread implementation of this new infinitely recyclable plastic could therefore help prevent vast amounts of single-use plastic from polluting the environment and ultimately ending up in our oceans and landfill sites.

Experts agree that plastics take hundreds of years to naturally degrade in the environment. As decomposition occurs, smaller and smaller pieces are created that researchers say are routinely ingested by animals. Some environmental professionals have predicted that, at the rate plastics are currently polluting our oceans, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the sea than fish. Some studies claim that tiny fragments of plastic have been documented in Arctic sea ice and fertilizer used on farmland.

Some of the responsibility for this crisis must be placed at the feet of our current recycling system. Quite simply, it is profoundly inadequate. Scientists believe that only approximately five per cent of all manufactured plastic material is recycled. Worse yet, most of these recycled materials are transformed into low-value products that, in turn, are never recycled.

But on the bright side, this innovative recyclable polymer material could allow us to imagine a world where single-use plastics are not thought of as waste, but as a raw material used to produce new plastic.