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The Next Frontiers of Recycling Science

Exciting advancements toward a greener, more sustainable future are made daily. Strides in electric vehicle, solar, and battery technology all hold promise in dramatically cutting greenhouse gas emissions. While limiting the production and use of fossil fuels rightly commands the attention of media, policymakers, and laboratories worldwide, it is only part of the sustainability picture.

Also key to the fight for humanity’s future is the need for cleaner disposal and recycling of waste materials. The recycling industry has attracted the attention of innovators who recognize the need for more sustainable recycling processes. So-called advanced recycling technologies also impact energy use and production, often in the form of synthetic and semi-synthetic petrochemical products that are resource-intensive to manufacture. The entire lifecycle of plastics and other synthetic materials is improved by these innovations, from their creation to their use to their reuse.

Catalytic Pyrolysis

Catalytic pyrolysis is a promising method of plastic disposal and reuse. Pyrolysis involves the thermal degradation of plastic waste into petroleum-like products at high temperatures in the absence of oxygen. This process can be integrated into the current plastics industry infrastructure to break down plastic into solid, liquid, and gaseous chemicals used as fuel. Catalytic pyrolysis involves adding a microporous or mesoporous catalyst to speed up pyrolysis and break down plastic into a purer end product. This accelerated thermal degradation of complex molecules and large chain hydrocarbons into smaller molecules is necessary for scaling the technology. Catalysts can be synthetic or non-synthetic, with synthetic versions currently yielding a higher-quality fuel.

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In organic chemistry, solvolysis involves a substitution reaction in which one atom or molecule is replaced by another. This process dissolves substances so new products can be created. Solvolysis recycling dissolves plastics into expanded polystyrene in monomers. The conversion of polystyrene back to styrene at scale is necessary to make plastic recycling with this method widespread.

This process is a significant improvement over older methods of melting down plastics, known to create carcinogenic chemicals and a large volume of liquid waste. Solvolysis converts plastics into their original monomer, which can then be processed into ‘virgin’ plastics or other products. Solvolysis is effective for polystyrene plastics that are usually not biodegradable, dirty to produce, and comprise a large volume of landfill waste. The same high-quality monomers can be yielded multiple times from multiple plastics products, making solvolysis a high-impact technology.

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At the cutting edge of advanced plastics recycling is the organic process of enzymolysis. Naturally-derived enzymes are a more sustainable approach to plastics recycling and target polyethylene terephthalate used in many single-use consumer plastics like water bottles. Polyethylene terephthalate and related products are also used in textiles. Enzymolisis has the potential to impact a wide range of energy, carbon, and socioeconomic challenges related to plastic production and disposal.

Enzlymolysis could transform the plastics economy by making it more energy efficient and scalable. Its end products are of high quality and will allow for plastics to be made from more durable materials that can be easily recycled. The enzymes used in plastic recycling can be derived from safe and sustainable fungi cultivated to produce enzymes to target specific plastics. These fungi can be deployed beyond controlled industrial recycling settings in natural settings like marine environments to safely degrade ocean plastics.

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Recycling Robots

Plastic’s carbon footprint extends to its reuse and disposal. The mechanical sorting of plastics and other synthetic materials with ultra-small parts (like cell phones) has made it resource-intensive to recycle them. This has prevented the reuse of durable parts like silicon chips in the manufacture of new products. Consumer products like cell phones introduce carbon and various forms of pollution across their lifecycles. Phones that cannot be broken down and reused find their way to landfills where their parts can leech toxic chemicals into soils and waterways.

Advancements in robotics have the potential to solve this challenge to extend the life of device components and recycle more of their parts. Apple is one company active in the robotics space and has been awarded a patent for “Daisy,” a modular system for the automated disassembly of portable devices like cell phones. Each of its four modules is designed to perform a specific task in the disassembly process, breaking down iPhones into individual parts that can be resued. Over one million cell phones can be dissembled in a single year with this process. Daisy initiates a sorting process of metals and plastics that can be continued by humans, representing a powerful example of how humans and robots can collaborate to reach important goals.

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