Plastic waste recycling: Cornell University research creates in-depth framework for chemical recycling of plastic

The framework also states that the consequences of chemical recycling would depend on several variables

Plastic waste: Chemical recycling is a process that allows waste products to be changed back into natural resources by physical breakdown of plastic into smaller molecules from which it was originally produced. Now, New York-based Cornell University’s College of Engineering has carried out new research to ease this process. The research was published in the journal ACS Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering, in which the authors detailed mathematical models and methodologies that take into account aspects like equipment for chemical recycling, the process, environmental effects as well as market for the end products, based on which they recommend different strategies and technologies that can be adopted for chemical recycling of plastic waste.

According to the university, this marks the first comprehensive analysis to quantify the environmental impacts of the plastic waste chemical recycling life cycle, including impacts like human toxicity and climate change. Since the 1950s, billions of tons of plastic has been produced but studies have found that a whopping 91% of it has not been recycled. This not only poses environmental issues, but is also a waste of economic opportunity that comes from recycling and reusing plastic.

With the framework drawn in the research, recycling of high-density polyethylene, which helps in making items like rigid bottles, underground pipes and toys, etc, can be recycled more commonly.

The research helps in giving industry players as well as authorities and policy makers an idea on how to advance chemical recycling so that plastic can be broken down and reused. However, the industry as well as policy experts would need to consider the huge amount of choices and variables that accompany the technological path. As an example, the paper suggests that in case demand for ethylene and propylene is adequate in the market, then a specific kind of chemical separation technology will need to be adopted, while demand for butane or isobutane would need to be matched by using a different technology type.

The framework also states that the consequences of chemical recycling would depend on several variables, like supplier process of chemical products and feedstocks.

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