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Bioplastics, made from polylactic acid (PLA) are becoming increasingly common in consumer products. Although PLA is biodegradable, recycling into new products may be a more sustainable option. Researchers from the UK have shown that can be done efficiently using a zinc-based catalyst and methanol.
Editorial office / Birmingham

The chemical process breaks down the PLA into a green solvent called methyl lactate. The team of researchers from the Universities of Bath and Birmingham tested their method on three separate PLA products: a disposable cup, some 3D printer waste, and a children’s toy. They found the cup was most easily converted to methyl lactate at lower temperatures, but even the bulkier plastic in the children’s toy could be converted using higher temperatures.

Professor Matthew Jones from the University of Bath’s Centre for Sustainable & Circular Technologies said: “It is exciting to see that our catalysts are stable to additives in the polymer and can be used for real materials from a variety of different applications.”

Lead researcher Professor Joe Wood, at the University of Birmingham, said: “Our technique breaks down the plastics into their chemical building blocks before ‘rebuilding’ them into a new product, so we can guarantee that the new product is of sufficiently high quality for use in other products and processes. It has real potential to contribute to ongoing efforts to reduce the amount of plastic going into landfill or being incinerated creating new valuable products from waste.”

The chemical process has been tried up to 300 ml, so next steps would include scaling up the reactor further before it can be used in an industrial setting. The research was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. The results are published in the journal Industrial & Engineering Chemistry (I&EC) Research.

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