Plastic pollution clogs our oceans and landfills. According to the Earth Policy Institute, Americans use about one plastic bag every day for just a few minutes before discarding it. Those bags end up in landfills and take potentially one thousand years to decompose. Scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the University of California, Irvine teamed up to combat this global issue. They developed a novel process that not only efficiently degrades plastics, but turns some into fuel.
The scientists focused on polyethylene, which comprises much of the plastic carelessly consumed and is difficult to degrade. Every year we produce 100 million metric tons of polyethylene. To break it down, polyethylene can be heated, but it’s difficult to control what products result from that inefficient process.
The scientists developed an efficient process that creates some useable products, and detailed it in a recently published study. Their process utilizes different catalysts to degrade polyethylene into compounds like butane, wax that can be used to make plastic, and diesel fuel. Basically, the process separates the substances present in plastic items like bags or water bottles into useful compounds.
According to the scientists, their process is inexpensive as well. However, it has not yet been scaled up, and one catalyst used is iridium, which in large quantities would be expensive. The scientists are searching for an alternative to iridium. At this point, the ratio of plastic to catalyst is 30 to 1, and they’d like to change that ratio to 10,000 to 1. So there’s likely a long way to go before this process could change the way we deal with plastic, but Phys.org reports the scientists are “cautiously optimistic” they’ll be able to tweak their process so it could be used for “commercial applications.”