IBM researchers say they have discovered a recycling process that converts BPA-leaching plastics into environmentally safe material for water purification and medical devices — a technological advance that could lead to less plastic waste and cheaper recycled materials manufacturers can use to produce a wide range of products.
Globally, about 2.7 million tons of polycarbonate plastic is produced annually and used to make CDs, baby bottles, eyeglass lenses and smartphones, among other items. Over time, polycarbonates decompose and leach BPA, a chemical that, in 2008, caused retailers to pull plastic baby bottles from store shelves due to concerns about the potential effects of BPA on the brain. Four years later, the EPA banned BPA in baby bottles and children’s cups.
Yesterday, IBM Research said scientists at its Almaden lab in San Jose, California said they have discovered a new, one-step chemical process that converts polycarbonates into plastics safe for water purification, fiber optics and medical equipment.
In the study, IBM Researchers added a fluoride reactant, a base (similar to baking powder) and heat to old CDs to produce a new plastic with temperature and chemical resistance superior to the original substance. When the powder is reconstructed into new forms, its strength prevents the decomposition process that causes BPA leaching, IBM says.
“Polycarbonates are common plastics in our society — especially in consumer electronics in the form of LED screens, smartphones and Blu-rays, as well as everyday eyeglass lenses, kitchen utensils and household storage gear,” said Gavin O. Jones, PhD, research staff member, IBM Research – Almaden in a statement. “We now have a new way of recycling to improve how this prominent substance impacts the world’s health and environment.”
Another IBM researcher Jeanette Garcia called it “an environmental win on many fronts.” The new process prevents plastics from entering landfills, recycles the substance into a new, safe and strong plastic, and provides business benefits as well, Garcia told Environmental Leader.
“Economic benefits arise from the use of waste as starting materials to make new plastics,” said Garcia, PhD, research staff member, IBM Research – Almaden. “Often times, materials derived from waste ends up costing less in the end because of energy that is saved. For example, materials from waste can cost up to 85 percent less in some cases, depending on the plastic.”
Commercialization of this process, however, is likely years away.
“Since IBM is not a chemical company, and therefore we do not produce chemicals at industrial scale, we would need partners to help with scaling up the process in the recycling and chemical industries. Although it is difficult to pinpoint an exact timeline, this scaling-up process can take some time — likely on the order of years — before it becomes commercially viable,” Garcia said.
Recycling and waste management was a hot topic at last week’s Environmental Leader conference as well, where Toyota and Dish Network execs discussed employee engagement on recycling initiatives and Jack Buffington, PhD, a researcher and a supply chain leader at MillerCoors said a chemical recycling process for plastics — similar to the one IBM is pursing — “can be done in five years.”
Buffington, post-doctoral researcher in supply chain/biotechnology at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden and author of The Recycling Myth, is working to develop a PET bottle-to-bottle recycling process that will break down plastic compounds to their original state. “So from a mechanical standpoint it’s just like a brand new material,” he said in a session at the Denver conference. “Now you have a closed-loop process for plastic waste.
“We’re putting a stake in the ground and saying we are going to do this in five years,” he continued. “This is good for consumer product companies. This is good for environmental groups, municipalities, recycling companies, you name it.”