Researchers develop way to effectively recycle stubborn polystyrene: ‘Efficient and potentially economically competitive’

A team of experts from the UK and Massachusetts is working on a cost-effective way to recycle the pesky polystyrene – commonly referred to by the brand name Styrofoam – which regularly arrives on the front porches of most homes in the form of product packaging. .

Known as polystyrene in labspeak, the material often ends up in landfills, or as ocean pollution, after protecting our mail goods.

Experts at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and the University of Bath report that their science “has the potential” to reuse up to 60% of polystyrene. Current methods can surprisingly only recycle under 5%, according to a press release from the experts.

This is in line with overall recycling of non-glossy plastics, which is about 5% to 6% in the United States, depending on the estimate.

“Chemical recycling techniques are a major focus of chemical engineering now and cost-effective and energy-efficient ways to break down plastics into their key building blocks, such as polystyrene, are urgently needed,” said Bath senior lecturer in chemical engineering Bernardo Castro-Dominguez. . a story from Interesting Engineering.

The composition of polystyrene makes it suitable for protecting the often fragile products that are shipped around the world every day. But experts said the structure of the material is what also makes recycling difficult.

The team is using pyrolysis as a solution. Polystyrene is heated in a vacuum until its molecules degrade into monomers, building blocks for the material. But once heated, the monomers are not pure enough to be recycled.

Experts developed a “distillation” process as part of a multi-step approach that provides reusable materials for a variety of products. Pyrolysis needs the same amount of energy as a microwave that runs for half an hour to create about 2.2 pounds of recycled material, all for IE and the expert lab summary.

“Our analysis reveals that polystyrene is an ideal candidate for a chemical recycling process. Remarkably, the process is energy efficient and potentially economically competitive,” Worcester professor Michael Timko said in the IE story.

Experts considered cost, air pollution and other factors involved in the overall incineration and recycling method.

They “concluded that the new process not only consists of scalable, proven technologies, but is realistic in terms of economics and energy use, and a net savings in incineration-related emissions—all good things to keep polystyrene out of our water, our food, and ultimately out of our bodies,” the lab’s summary says.

About half a percent of the world’s plastic waste ends up in our oceans. This translates into a staggering amount of trash that is causing a host of problems in the seas and beyond. It has been widely reported that microplastics are found in the blood of most people tested. A story from Nature highlights a three-year study linking small pollutants to increased heart attack and other health risks.

Finding plastic-free alternatives is perhaps the most effective way to eliminate pollution. Replacing discarded sandwich bags and plastic water bottles with reusable containers can prevent pounds of plastic from ending up in the trash each year. Moving can also save you significant money.

Innovations being developed to tackle the problem also include a water bottle from Cove that breaks down 200 times faster than plastic.

The new polystyrene effort could help reduce the huge amounts of plastic pollution associated with the packaging we make. Experts there are now working on ways to improve the process, possibly including other plastic waste streams.

Additionally, the lab’s summary states that they are “developing new and even more efficient technologies for recycling plastics.”

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