There are over 6 billion tons of plastic waste languishing on the planet, unable to be recycled – but this 23-year-old college student may have come up with an ingenious way to reuse all of that trash.
Miranda Wang is one of the co-founders of BioCellection: a company that uses a chemical process to break down plastics and turn them into an essential ingredient for nylon, which otherwise uses petroleum.
Wang’s method specifically targets polyethylene, a cheap kind of plastic that is only recycled less than 3% of the time. Despite being the most used plastic in the US, much of this plastic is rejected from recycling plants because it’s covered in dirt, food, or grime.
“Film is the worst type of plastic because it’s so easy to catch surface contamination,” Wang told WIRED. “You can have such a small amount by mass, by weight of plastic, and its entangled and wrapped around everything in the waste bin and it just catches all the liquids and the oil.”
After building on research they did in high school, Wang and her co-founder Jeanny Yao started their company in 2015. They had originally planned on using a specific kind of soil bacteria (which works similarly to the enzyme that made headlines in April) to eat these plastics. However, the bacteria would always prefer to eat the surface grime, rather than the plastic, and it digested the polyethylene too slowly to be effective.
The young Canadian researchers then adopted a catalyst that can destabilize and break down the plastics into liquid chemicals without causing surface contamination to react. Additionally, the process is completed much more quickly—it takes only three hours for the plastic to break down.
The resulting liquid chemicals can then be used to make materials like nylon, which is commonly used in the fashion and automotive industry. This way, single-use plastics can be effectively recycled while simultaneously replacing the need for petroleum.
The catalyst can also be boiled off and reused by BioCellection’s technology so that it can continuously convert more plastic.
The company will be conducting a pilot demonstration of their process in October by converting 17 metric tons of plastic waste into 6 tons of valuable chemicals over the course of 3 months. After that, the team plans on building a larger machine to continue recycling the materials, and expanding their research to include recycling other forms of plastic as well.
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