Scientists Say They Can Break Down PET Plastic With One Weird Trick



LPG Gas Bottles. LPG plantAgain this week the media is repeating big claims about revolutionary plastic technology (see also, “Japanese scientists engineer plastic-eating bacteria,” et al.).

This time, organic chemists in China have announced that they have discovered a high-efficiency method for degrading plastic, a technique that can also be used to turn plastic into diesel fuel.

There are two main problems with most methods for breaking down polyethylene plastic resins. The process is either too energy intensive, or, like the plastic-eating microbes developed in Japan, not easily scalable. Yet Zheng Huang, who led the new research project, claims that his technique overcomes both obstacles.

“Our products are much cleaner than those obtained by conventional [combustion] methods,” Huang said recently to Gizmodo Australia.

Huang is a Chinese Academy of Sciences chemist, and writing in Science Advances he describes a new method for degrading PET at temperatures of just 150 degrees Celsius with one weird trick: adding a common organometallic catalyst to the reaction.

So far the method has only been demonstrated with small samples of plastic packaging, like bags and bottles.

Already, PET is one of the most highly recycled materials on the planet, and there are a combined 19,400 curbside recycling and drop-off programs in the United States alone. As much as 100% of a PET plastic can be recycled, yet diversion efforts have failed to keep plastic out of the world’s landfills and oceans.

So while Huang’s claims about plastic degradation should be taken with a grain of salt for now, the technology does seem incredibly promising.

“We think that the future potential is there — as long as we can improve the efficiency and reduce the cost of the iridium,” Huang said. “Hopefully, very soon we can scale up the process from gram scale in the lab to kilogram and even ton scale.”

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