The U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is hot on the trail of a new process for “upcycling” single-use plastics to extend their lifespan, while cutting the energy consumed by the recycling process.
“The problem is really one of economics,” CleanTechnica explains. “There is no market for discarded single-use plastic, and so there is no economic model that permits entrepreneurs to recycle it and make a profit. It just gets thrown away in landfills or tossed into the sea.”
But in a paper last month in the journal Joule, NREL researchers put forward a method of reclaiming that plastic and turning it into more valuable raw material for new products.
NREL’s new process would apply to the polyethylene terephthalate (PETs) that are used in single-use plastic products like water and pop bottles, and can only be recycled once or twice, CleanTechnica notes. “Standard PET recycling today is essentially downcycling,” said NREL Senior Research Fellow Gregg Beckham. “The process we came up with is a way to upcycle PET into long-lifetime, high-value composite materials like those that would be used in car parts, wind turbine blades, surfboards, or snowboards.”
That process combines PETs with waste plant biomass to create fibre-reinforced plastics (FRPs), which “have an economic value two to three times greater than the original PET,” CleanTechnica states. “Not only that, the new products use 57% less energy than reclaiming PET using the current recycling process and emit 40% fewer greenhouse gases than FRPs derived from petroleum.”
“The idea is to develop technologies that would incentivize the economics of PET reclamation,” Beckham told Science Daily. “That’s the real hope—to develop second-life upcycling technologies that make single-use waste plastic valuable to reclaim. This, in turn, could help keep waste plastic out of the world’s oceans and out of landfills.”
That matters, because “the scale of PET production dwarfs that of composites manufacturing,” said NREL senior engineer Nicholas Rorrer. “We need many more upcycling solutions to truly make a global impact on plastics reclamation through technologies like the one proposed in the current study.”