At an IBM lab in Silicon Valley, if you put a cotton-polyester blend T-shirt into an InstaPot-like pressure reactor, a new process will disassemble it into a ball of pure cotton and a white powder that can be made directly into pure plastic. Fill the device with dirty plastic bottles and containers and something similar happens: In minutes, you have a pile of white powder–clean plastic material that a manufacturer could use instead of virgin feedstock made from petroleum.
Researchers at IBM developed the process, called VolCat, as an alternative to traditional recycling. The usual process involves sorting waste, washing it, separating out contaminants, chopping it up, and re-melting it. The result is a lower-quality plastic that brands often don’t want to use. IBM’s process is one example of a growing number of new methods for chemical recycling. The researchers use a catalyst to “selectively digest” PET plastic inside the reactor.
“The catalyst finds the PET polymer and chews it up,” says Bob Allen, senior manager of chemistry and materials at IBM Research. “You can visualize the polymer chains like a very long string of beads, and each bead is a monomer unit. This catalyst goes in, kind of like a molecular pair of scissors, and starts chopping it up very, very rapidly.”
The company is currently talking to partners about running a larger pilot test, to see if the approach is economical at scale, But the researchers envision that the system will plug into plastic production plants–which would start getting shipments of recycling sent directly to them. Because it can use the dirtiest, lowest-value post-consumer materials, and the catalyst can be fully recycled, it keeps costs low. It also uses relatively little energy. Right now, the plastic industry uses virgin petroleum-based feedstocks in almost all production, accounting for around 6% of global oil use. That’s around the same amount used by the aviation industry, and a major source of emissions.
As the use of plastic grows, a 2018 report from the International Energy Agency predicts that emissions from petrochemicals will rise as much as 30% by the middle of the century. But technologies like IBM’s could reverse that trajectory, as long as recycling infrastructure grows and consumers start sending more old packaging to recycling centers instead of landfills or the ocean. Some technologies are closer to market. Loop Industries, based in Montreal, has a pilot plant and agreements with brands like Evian to turn low-value plastic–from water bottles to old carpet to ocean plastic–into new, clean packaging through a chemical recycling process. Loop is currently developing its first commercial facility, which will supply customers like PepsiCo, Danone, and Coca-Cola European Partners.
“In the next five years, we think there’s going to be an explosion of innovation in the plastics recycling industry, and that the world can really tap into these waste plastics to generate new plastics as opposed to where we are today,” says Allen.