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.

About the author

In a software-driven world, it's easy to forget about the nuts and bolts. Whether it's cars, robots, personal gadgetry or industrial machines, Candace Lombardi examines the moving parts that keep our world rotating. A journalist who divides her time between the United States and the United Kingdom, Lombardi has written about technology for the sites of The New York Times, CNET, USA Today, MSN, ZDNet,, and GameSpot. She is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not a current employee of CNET.


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