Plastics Recycling and Heat
Plastic. Hard plastic. Oozing plastic. Multi coloured plastic. Plastic you put in your mouth. Synthetic plastic fibres you wear. Space plastic. Plastic you work with. Life saving medical plastic. Our planet is abounding with this unique and fantastically handy petroleum product. As I flitter through the endless number of web pages devoted to this new fandangled invention I have come to realise there is no way anyone could know everything about it. So instead I focus my sight in the process of recycling plastic and the S.T.E.E.P. issues related to it, and there are many.


The fleshy aura if imminent disaster always fills the room when the subject of environmental awareness is brought up. Indeed the devastating effects of plastic on the environment are news to nobody, but the issue never ceases to carry with it a sense of urgency rivalling that of a heart attack. Well, with me at least. While there has been a tremendous amount of research and effort devoted to the betterment of plastics recycling it remains in its infancy when compared to other materials. The problem with plastics recycling is that it requires too much heat and energy making it borderline cost ineffective which, in terms of economics and society, is a disaster.


For a plastic to be recycled it must be soft. Oozing, almost. This entails heating the material to a scorching 200* Celsius. The dollar signs involved with this process are astronomically high due the amount of energy needed. In addition to money, the heating process severely taxes the strength of the microscopic polymer chains that make up the material. Companies exploring the recycling market see this as a crippling blow to the resale value of the material and overall profit of the process and that ‘scares ‘em all away’. In terms of the environment, it can be debated that the amount of energy and resources need to recycle plastic outweigh the benefits of the process.


So where does all this leave us? It would not be feasible to remove plastic from consumer’s shelves as it has integrated itself into almost every aspect of our daily lives (I’m glad my shampoo bottles aren’t made of glass). We must instead orient our gaze towards the creation of a plastic which can be cost-effectively recycled. We must orient our gaze towards the American scientists which have done just that.


Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researcher Anne Mayes and colleagues believe they have found the answer to the high cost of recycling with the creation of ‘polybutyl acetate’; a rigid yet soft mixture of polystyrene. This plastic can be recycled at room temperature, requiring only a pressure of 340 atm (the amount of pressure used in conventional recycling) to be re-molded. Furthermore, polybutyl acetate does not lose its strength after the recycling process with samples remaining as strong as ever after 10 cycles.


If this new material is proved on the industrial scale it will significantly reduce the amount of disposed plastic, which can take decades to biodegrade. While MIT researchers are not hoping this will replace plastic (meaning that it will have to be sorted by hand for recycling), they are hoping it will be a large substitute. Indeed the future is a little brighter for our petroleum based friend and for the planet the houses the beings who created it.