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New method ‘upcycles’ plastic to give it a more valuable second life

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is a lightweight and waterproof plastic commonly used to make containers and packaging. From the food you eat to the water you drink, chances are good that it was packaged in PET.

PET is also fully recyclable, and yet millions of tons of PET end up in landfills or the oceans every year where it takes hundreds of years to break down. When PET is recycled, it can only be used again once or twice after the recycling process and is much less valuable the second time around.  

But now, researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have developed a new recycling process that effectively upcycles PET into a more valuable material with a longer lifespan.

A study detailing the new recycling process was published in the journal JOULE and reveals how the new recycled material could be used in a wide range of products.

“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,” said Greg Beckham, the senior author of the study.

The researchers combined recycled PET with renewable materials like plant-biomass and developed two fiber-reinforced plastics that are two to three times more valuable than PET.  

PET upcycling would also require 57 percent less energy to produce than other recycling processes and would emit fewer greenhouse gasses. The key is to find a way to process the new upcycled material on a large scale.

“The idea is to develop technologies that would incentivize the economics of PET reclamation,” said Beckham. “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.”

The researchers plan to continue studying upcycled PET and finding efficient ways to make the process feasible for manufacturing and 100 percent recyclable. For now, the materials combined with PET in the study, although durable and long lasting, are not recyclable at the end of their life, according to the researchers.

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer

Image Credit: Dennis Schroeder / NREL

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