Infinitely Recyclable 'Plastic' Has Been Invented by Scientists

Scientists at Colorado State University have developed a new material that can be recycled over and over again, and could, one day, provide a sustainable alternative to plastics.

Plastics are incredibly useful materials which are ubiquitous in modern society. They're cheap, convenient, lightweight and long-lasting, so it's not surprising that we produce more than 300 million tons of the stuff every year.

But of the 8 billion tons of plastic that humanity has created in the time since its mass production began, only around 10 percent has ever been recycled. The majority of the waste has been sent to landfills or made its way into the environment through various means and where it can remain for hundreds of years without degrading.

Creating plastics that can be easily broken down into their constituent building blocks and reused without significant processing could help make recycling easier and stem the incessant tide of pollution. Currently, most plastics degrade into compounds that require a lot of processing to be turned into something useful, making recycling difficult.

The new material, however—which is described in a study published in the journal Science—displays many of the same characteristics that make plastic useful. It's strong, durable and lightweight but can also be broken down and recycled "infinitely" in theory, according to Eugene Chen, a professor in Colorado State University's department of chemistry.

Furthermore, this recycling process can be achieved in just a few minutes, without the need for toxic chemicals or significant amounts of catalyst, making it both environmentally friendly and suitable for industry.

The new material is a polymer, a broad class of materials that consist of many repeated chains of molecular units, known as monomers. Synthetic versions include plastics, fibers, ceramics, rubbers and a host of other products, although polymers can also form naturally.

Eugene Chen’s lab in the department of chemistry at Colorado State University has developed a completely recyclable polymer, shown here. The breakthrough represents a major step toward providing an alternative to regular plastics. Bill Cotton/Colorado State University

In the case of the new research, the polymer can be broken down into a monomer and "repolymerized" back into its original form. According to the researchers, the latest breakthrough represents a major step toward a fully recyclable, sustainable material that could, one day, provide an alternative to regular plastics.

The researchers note that their new polymer has only been demonstrated in a lab, so there is still much more work to do before it can be patented and commercialized. Currently, they are trying to optimize the synthesis of the new material and make it more cost-effective. They are also looking at ways to scale up the recycling process and to search for new chemical structures in order to create even more useful recyclable materials.