Process converts polyethylene bags, plastics to polymer building blocks

Read the full story from UC Berkeley.

Polyethylene plastics — in particular, the ubiquitous plastic bag that blights the landscape — are notoriously hard to recycle. They’re sturdy and difficult to break down, and if they’re recycled at all, they’re melted into a polymer stew useful mostly for decking and other low-value products.

But a new process developed at the University of California, Berkeley, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) could change all that. The process uses catalysts to break the long polyethylene (PE) polymers into uniform chunks — the three-carbon molecule propylene — that are the feedstocks for making other types of high-value plastic, such as polypropylene.

The process, admittedly in the early stages of development, would turn a waste product — not only plastic bags and packaging, but all types of PE plastic bottles — into a major product in high demand. Previous methods to break the chains of polyethylene required high temperatures and gave mixtures of components in much lower demand. The new process could not only lower the need for fossil fuel production of propylene, often called propene, but also help fill a currently unmet need by the plastics industry for more propylene.

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