Green plastic breakthrough from Big Blue, Stanford

Material sciences achievement in organocatalysts research could lead to more sustainable plastics, better recycling methods.

A group of scientists from IBM and Stanford University announced Wednesday a chemistry breakthrough that could change the nature of plastics and plastics recycling.

Using organic catalysts, the team has developed a new method for producing and breaking down plastic polymers.

Jim Hedrick is a researcher at IBM's San Jose, Calif., facility who worked on the organocatalysis breakthrough. IBM/Monica M. Davey

"Additionally, the team has developed a new strategy for the synthesis of high molecular weight cyclic polyesters and the generation of new families of biocompatible polymers for biomedical applications," according to IBM.

In terms of real-world application, the science could lead to plastics becoming endlessly recyclable rather than junk in a landfill.

As IBM points out, many plastic bottles, while they are now being recycled, can only be recycled once for what is called "second-generation use." Most bottles made from second-generation recycled plastic cannot be recycled yet again, and so are typically sent to landfills.

Many people have been working on the plastics issue, and there are several organic-based recyclable plastics being introduced. In February, for example, the Imperial College London and BioCeramic Therapeutics introduced a degradable plastic polymer made from the sugars derived from the breakdown of lignocellulosic biomass. There also already exists several plant- and cornstarch-based plastic products including household paper goods, food packaging, and bioplastic children's toys from Cereplast. Metabolix also has several lines of corn-based plastic products in conjunction with partner companies.

Details of the polymer development can be found in the paper "Organocatalysis: Opportunities and Challenges for Polymer Synthesis," which has been published in the American Chemical Society journal, Macromolecules.

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