Revolutionary eco-friendly plastic tackles waste crisis

Circular economy

United StatesA team at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) is working on reduction of plastic waste.

The team is led by Corinne Scown, Brett Helms, Jay Keasling, and Kristin Persson. Less than two years ago, Helms announced the invention of a new plastic that could tackle the waste crisis head on. Called poly(diketoenamine), or PDK, the material has all the convenient properties of traditional plastics while avoiding the environmental pitfalls, because unlike traditional plastics, PDKs can be recycled indefinitely with no loss in quality.

Using PDK on large scale

Now, the team has released a study that shows what can be accomplished if manufacturers began using PDKs on a large scale. The bottom line? PDK-based plastic could quickly become commercially competitive with conventional plastics, and the products will get less expensive and more sustainable as time goes on.

The study presents a simulation for a 20,000-metric-ton-per-year facility that puts out new PDKs and takes in used PDK waste for recycling. The authors calculated the chemical inputs and technology needed, as well as the costs and greenhouse gas emissions, then compared their findings to the equivalent figures for production of conventional plastics.

Checking the boxes of cheap and easy

To date, more than 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic material have been produced, and the vast majority of this has ended up in landfills or waste incineration plants. A small proportion of plastics are sent to be recycled “mechanically,” meaning they are melted down and then re-shaped into new products. However, this technique has limited benefit. Plastic resin itself is made of many identical molecules (called monomers) bound together into long chains (called polymers). Yet to give plastic its many textures, colors, and capabilities, additives like pigments, heat stabilizers, and flame retardants are added to the resin.

When many plastics are melted down together, the polymers become mixed with a slew of potentially incompatible additives, resulting in a new material with much lower quality than newly produced virgin resin from raw materials. As such, less than 10% of plastic is mechanically recycled more than once, and recycled plastic usually also contains virgin resin to make up for the dip in quality.

PDK plastics sidestep this problem entirely – the resin polymers are engineered to easily break down into individual monomers when mixed with an acid. The monomers can then be separated from any additives and gathered to make new plastics without any loss of quality. The team’s earlier research shows that this “chemical recycling” process is light on energy and carbon dioxide emissions, and it can be repeated indefinitely, creating a completely circular material lifecycle where there is currently a one-way ticket to waste.

Expanding market

Thanks to optimization from process modeling, recycled PDKs are already drawing interest from companies needing to source plastic. Always looking to the future, Helms and his colleagues have been conducting market research and meeting with people from industry since the project’s early days. Their legwork shows that the best initial application for PDKs are markets where the manufacturer will receive their product back at the end of its lifespan, such as the automobile industry (through trade-ins and take-backs) and consumer electronics (through e-waste programs). These companies will then be able to reap the benefits of 100% recyclable PDKs in their product: sustainable branding and long-term savings.

After infiltrating the market for durable products like cars and electronics, the team hopes to expand PDKs into shorter-lived, single-use goods such as packaging.

Low costs

As they forge plans for a commercial launch, the scientists are also continuing their techno-economic collaboration on the PDK production process. Although the cost of recycled PDK is already projected to be competitively low, the scientists are working on additional refinements to lower the cost of virgin PDK, so that companies are not deterred by the initial investment price.

Support for the project

The Molecular Foundry is a Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science user facility that specializes in nanoscale science. JBEI is a Bioenergy Research Center funded by DOE’s Office of Science.

This work was supported by the DOE’s Bioenergy Technologies Office and Berkeley Lab’s Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) program.