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

Stashed in: Ecology!, Awesome, Biotech!

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Seems like a very useful finding.

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.

Top Reddit comment:

The article is mixing biodegradable and depolymerizable. The poly(GBL) seems to be able to go through complete thermal depolimerization, but it is not clear if it would be biodegradable.

Biodegradable is when the polymer can be consumed by microorganisms like fungi or bacteria. Environment-friendliness-wise, it has upsides and downsides:

It's counter-intuitive, but it can be greener if we burn our plastic trash in a controlled environment, with proper filters and byproducts disposal. Indeed both biodegradation and combustion transform your plastic into CO2. However, with combustion you have the opportunity to produce electricity. Polymers are pretty much as good as a fuel than oil. If the polymer biodegrate, you can't benefit from the reaction, nor can you safely dispose of the eventual nasty additives in it.

On the other hand, if you're unable to collect efficiently your trash, biodegratation gives you the insurance it will disappear after a short period of time and won't be a health hazard to wild life.

From the article, the good things about poly(GBL) aren't that it's biodegradable but that it's a biopolymer, so not produced with oil, and it's completely depolimerizable. If that's true, that means we could potentially heat the wastes and reproduce a polymer of the same, or even higher grade. It's a huge deal on paper, but there are a lot of challenges which could make it unusable in our daily life: production price, mechanical and chemical properties, recycling cost (do you need to wash it and/or dry it for instance?)...

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