Millions of tons of plastic bottles, bags and other trash littering the oceans and clogging landfills could be turned into reusable fuel, thanks to research by the University of California, Irvine and the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry. UC Irvine chemist Zhibin Guan is among those who have figured out how to dissolve the strong bonds of polyethylene plastic to re-create petroleum and other products.
The breakthrough, reported in Science Advances, means that the waste could someday be harvested and inexpensively recycled into valuable commodities.
Guan said the new technique employs alkanes, specific types of hydrocarbon molecules, to disrupt the long chemical chains in polyethylene plastics. Resulting byproducts include a liquid fuel and industrially beneficial waxes. The new recycling method may have an edge on existing plastic reuse methods that rely on inefficiently heating the material to about 700 degrees Fahrenheit or breaking it down with highly reactive, toxic chemicals known as radicals.