Transforming Plastic: Recycling

Read about the advent of mass-produced plastics and how some are trying to change the game by inventing ways to recycle polymers.

| August 2019

Plastics-landfill
Photo from Adobe Stock/aryfahmed

All polymers begin as sunlight that falls upon the earth. Billions of years ago, some single-celled organisms captured sunlight from green chloroplast cells before dying and settling to the bottom of the ancient ocean. Later, larger multi-celled algae and zooplankton did the same, for hundreds of millions of years. Under the heat and pressure of layers of sediment and shifting continents, their carcasses became a solid substance called kerogen and, eventually, the hydrocarbon chains we’ve come to know as natural gas, petroleum, and coal.

The first modern, widely available plastic was made from nitrocellulose, a plant material, and camphor resin, a coal tar. An American inventor named John Wesley Hyatt won a prize offered by a billiard manufacturer looking for a cheaper alternative to ivory. Hyatt’s “celluloid” won with a bang, because occasionally, according to Hyatt, “the violent contact of the balls would produce a mild explosion like a percussion gun-cap.” Nitrocellulose is explosive.

The birth of plastics in the early twentieth century made possible the birth of mass-scale injection molding — shooting liquid plastic into a closed mold, letting it harden (which can take only seconds), and then opening the mold to eject the finished product. As Heather Rogers tells us in “A Brief History of Plastic” for the Brooklyn Rail, “In the mid-1930s, at one company the same worker that formerly made 350 plastic hair combs per day could turn out more than 10,000 in equal time using injection molding.”



Some long-chain hydrocarbons can and do get broken down by natural agents, such as sunlight, water, and bacteria, but those kinds of biodegradable molecules have not been the stock and trade of the plastic industry.

“The real trick is to make them stable when you’re using them, and unstable when you don’t want to use them,” explained Marc Hillmyer, who leads the Center for Sustainable Polymers at the University of Minnesota. Instead of looking for durable, long-chain molecules, chemists are now looking for short-chain molecules that can be “stitched together” for use and then “unzippered” when ready to be discarded. Xiao Zhi Lim, writing in 2018 for the New York Times, explains:






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