Researchers develop plastic that they are calling the 'Holy Grail' of recycling

Department of Energy’s scientists announced this week that they have designed a plastic that can be recycled over and over again.

Researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory wrote in Nature Chemistry that they had designed new plastic, called polydiketoenamine or PDK, that could be disassembled down to the molecular level and reassembled into different shapes, textures or colors multiple times.

Modern-day plastics are reinforced with chemicals to make them more resilient and often end up making the material more difficult to fully recycle.

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“Light yet sturdy, plastic is great – until you no longer need it. Because plastics contain various additives, like dyes, fillers, or flame retardants, very few plastics can be recycled without loss in performance or aesthetics,” the lab said in a statement.

Even the most recyclable plastic is only being recycled at a rate of 20 percent to 30 percent, while the rest ends up in incinerators or landfills, researchers said. 

Plastic that can be broken down gets mixed in with other plastics with different textures and compositions, described as a “hodgepodge of chopped-up plastics,” making it hard to predict which properties will be inherited.

This unknown has prevented what many consider to be the “Holy Grail of recycling,” the researchers said in the statement.

Brett Helms, a staff scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Foundry who helped lead the research, said PDK-based plastics will help prevent items like phone cases and watch bands from ending up in landfills or the oceans.

“We’re interested in the chemistry that redirects plastic lifecycles from linear to circular,” said Helms. “We see an opportunity to make a difference for where there are no recycling options."