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Scientist Produces First Completely Recyclable Biopolymer! All Plastic Products Could Be Recyclable And Renewable In The Future

Biorenewable plastic bottles could soon find a way on our shopping shelves

Eugene Chen, a chemist at the Colorado State University, experimented on the monomer Gamma-butyrolactone to produce a biopolymer that can be fully recycled back to its original monomer state for re-use.

The statistics show that on average more than 200 pounds of synthetic polymers (most of these not biorenewable/biodegradable) are utilised per person each year and plastics are taking the number one spot in years production and waste.

Each year, around 10-20 million tons of plastic finds its way in to the Earth’s oceans, in total an estimated 5.25 trillion plastic fragments, weighing 268,940 tons. This plastic remains results in an estimated loss of $13 billion each year from damage that is done to the oceans ecosystem.

Until the discovery, currently available bioplastics like the PLA could only undergo partial thermal recycling. In contrast, the biopolymer developed by Chen called poly(GBL) can be recycled to its base monomer form using a heat reaction. From its base GBL monomer, the polymerisation process can commence again for use in future plastic products.

GBL is a colorless liquid that has a variety of uses among which are as a superglue remover and a cleaning solution. Prior to Chen’s breakthrough, the scientific community had theorized that converting GBL to a polymer was not possible.

Chen and his partner, Miao Hong, thought otherwise and conducted experiments. Eventually, they discovered a method that led to the production of poly(GBL) from GBL. Going further, the duo developed a technique to make shapes using the polymer.

Chen and Hong were able to create linear and cyclic versions of the polymer by varying the catalysts used and the reaction conditions of the production process.

recyclable bi

An illustration of the polymer synthesis process. The single molecules, or monomers, are cooled in order to polymerize; to cycle them back, heat is applied. (Image Credit: Jing Tang – Chen lab)

Chen’s team specially designed reaction conditions, along with the low temperature, to make the polymer and heat between 220-300 degrees Celsius to convert the polymer back into the original monomer, showing that polymer is thermal recyclable.

Poly(GBL) has similarities with the commonly used biodegradable bioplastic—P4HB. However, compared to P4HB, poly(GHB) is cheaper to produce, is more abundant and is a more environmentally-friendly alternative. Thus making the poly(GHB) an increasingly potential replacement to the P4HB that will soothe the growing demand of bioplastics.

These properties of the poly(GBL) underscore its immense industry-changing potential. It is importantly petroleum-free, can be broken down by living organisms (biodegradable) and can be fully recycled for future use.

First fully recyclable plastic has been invented

More than 300 million tons of plastics is produced each year

Chen and Hong have published the discovery in a recent issue of Nature Chemistry journal. Chen has also filed a provisional patent for the discovery and recently received the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award.

About the author

Dean Smith

  • Ken

    impossible! Asians are uncreative robots stifled by the totalitarian communist regime (including those who live outside of China). This Was Stolen™ from America by Chinese spies.

    • someone

      Who cares? Fuck yeah science! :D

    • bioqubit

      there are precious few, and they do exist, Chinese scientists and engineers who are resolutely creative, but they are overwhelmed by the tyrannical system in which they live. I find that Chinese encultured in this country seem quite capable of inventing useful things and showing unusual insight. Remember that their old culture is still a huge drag on them. Also, a biological note, decades ago, Chinese chemist came up with their own synthesis for ATP. Chemistry is one area where you have to keep an eye on them. It is a strength of theirs.

    • ben welgoed

      Ken, Don’t call us, we’ll call you (if we ever want you on Comedy Central).

    • cyclesoul

      “Eugene Chen, a chemist at the Colorado State University,”
      Did you even read the FIRST line of the article???

    • Dave M

      Can I even read a f#$%ing article about f#$%ing recyclable plastic without having to listen to a f#$%ing racist idiot???

      • Eulogia

        Ummm….I think he is joking? So yes, you can read a f#$%ing article without having to listen to a f#$%ing racist idiot. Or even swearing.

    • hughsbayou

      Methinks that Ken is pulling your leg a wee bit.

  • Chris Clements

    If this can be de polymerized without special catalysts, it’s basically drugs. GBL monomer is a prodrug and precursor for GHB. If it just breaks down over time it can never be used in any food contact surface for sure. It’ll probably never see the light of day as a result.

    • rluker5

      Good lord.

    • Laura

      Chris Clements — the article states; “Chen and Hong were able to create linear and cyclic versions of the polymer by varying the catalysts used and the reaction conditions of the production process.” Note the word CATALYSTS (stated with kindness — as I recognize that in the initial excitement of reading the article, you may have missed that sentence).

      • Chris Clements

        This was for polymerizing. If it depolymerizes even partly when you heat it, that’s a problem.

        • Steven

          The process for breaking poly-GBL is to heat “at 220 °C (linear polymer) or 300 °C (cyclic polymer) for one hour”, so it will be suitable for at least cold and warm food. (430 or 500°F)

          A bigger problem would be anyone actively trying to make or accidentally heating the polymer, which could make it too dangerous to use widely.

          • Chris Clements

            That’s to fully depolymerize. Don’t existing plastics leech at high temperatures. Probably will not result in a high enough dose to be a concern in general, but if someone gets really drunk it could be a problem.

  • Karen17

    is he smoking a cigarette ?!

    • Lisztman

      So it would appear.

      Apparently you “don’t believe it”. There ARE still millions of individuals who for one reason or another (self included) who have not been able to quit, or decided not to quit.

      Please don’t knock it if you haven’t been there. You’ve presumably seen the data that says that nicotine is one of the most addictive substances known to man? And anyone who tells you that “anyone can quit if he wants to” doesn’t really know what he’s talking about…

  • Ms Myriad

    And now there really are no more excuses to dig up more petroleum. Let the poor dinosaur ooze rest in peace.

  • Laura

    May I humbly suggest Equity Crowdfunding by Colorado State and the scientists (to do two things – 1. make certain the inventors and the supporting school continue to benefit, and 2. increase amazing things available in the commons domain that benefit everyone, not just a few people willing to step on others for their own gain (or maybe make a B-corporation?)

  • Barry Lauritzen

    I’m all for the research and hopefully the adoption of more eco-friendly products, but I’ve got a question. How do you quantify the damage to the earths’s oceans in dollars? “$13 billion dollars in damage each year”? I’m just curious how this number was arrived at. Because if it is or seems to be a number plucked out of thin air for the sake of filling in a blank, I believe it does more harm than good to our cause. Shaky data gives opponents a place to start picking at the whole structure of evidence.

    • Chris Clements

      You can probably estimate the financial burden of a loss of fish stocks. If you can tease out the specific damage caused by plastic with all the confounding factors. Any number you generate is likely to be a severe under or overestimate, though.

      • Lisztman

        Sorry, Chris. You have a gaping hole in your understanding of statistics.

        If a given “guess” or “calculation” is (you didn’t say, but I’ll assume “equally”) likely to be a severe under- or overestimate — than a statistical distribution of possible error would assume the classic bell curve — and actual answers would, in all probability, be much closer to the suggested value.

        • Chris Clements

          I don’t think it’s equally likely. I just mean that anything you generate is probably going to be way off of the actual value. How far off, and how that is distributed, I have no idea.

  • Paladin

    I’m not a chemist but….doesn’t the breakdown by heat imply this cannot replace thermoplastics?

  • This is really interesting news from China. Looking forward to seeing what comes of it. A biopolymer alternative would be better for the environment.