Advances in technology give new life to used plastics

Sustainability |  5 min. read

The trouble with plastic isn’t what to do with it.  We KNOW what to do with it.


We can make it thin (for eyeglass lenses), thinner (for food wrap) or thick (for walls or insulation).  We can make it flexible (think fabric for sweatshirts and shorts) or stiff (for laptops or mobile phones).  We can make it any color (or no color), any shape and use it to make, well, everything.

(Take a tour around the house to see these “building blocks of modern life” in action)

The trouble with plastic is what to do with it, when we’re done with it.

And it turns out, that some of the same qualities (strength, durability) that make plastic so useful, make it so challenging when we’re done with it.  Throw it away, and it can just sit there…wherever there happens to be.  And if “there” is the ocean floor or a city street or a park — that isn’t good.

What IS good though — is that we are learning there are almost as many uses for that used plastic, as when it’s brand new.  And there is a lot of good news about re-using plastic, instead of tossing it.

Take the plastic bottle, for example.  When we’re done with our water or juice or soda, we know now to drop that bottle in the recycling bin instead of the trash can.  From there, we’ve been finding more and more ways to recycle and reuse that plastic:

  • 12 of those bottles (along with a little chemistry and elbow grease), and you’ve got a new Ralph Lauren Earth Polo shirt.
  • With 111 bottles, you can make a chair, a classic, made-in-America designed kitchen chair.
  • 250 bottles, and you’ve got parts including the underbody, carpeting and seats for a Ford Escape (yes, they use other materials too).*
  • Take 20,000 of those bottles — shred them — mix with asphalt, and you’ve got new, improved roads.**
  • And if you’ve got 612,000 water bottles lying around — you can build a very cool house!

Because plastic can be reused (pretty much types of plastic can be — many of them already are; others, as we’ll see, we’re working on) — maybe it’s time we gave our plastic “trash” a new name — like “raw material.”  When we’re done with anything made of plastic, what we’ve got in our hand — is the stuff to make something new.

But some plastics are tougher to recycle than those plastic bottles.

Potato chip bags, for instance, and juice pouches.  So in a few cities around the country, Dow is trying something new:  people recycle those plastics in a bag separate from their other recycling.  That bag is picked up separately, and recycled separately (in this case, using high, high heat to turn that plastic into — fuel.  Diesel that can run a car, a truck, a bus).

Meanwhile in Pennsylvania, one trash company is going a different direction.  Its customers put their chip bags and grocery bags into the recycling with everything else.  They’ve got new sorting machines that pull out those plastics, and they’ve got some local manufacturers lined up to turn that used plastic into things like new floor mats for cars.

Another approach:  LyondellBasell is using its chemical expertise (it makes plastics along with other chemicals and some refining too) to tackle the problem of making recycled plastics that are the same high quality as the original (which means there are more uses for it).  With a little laboratory magic, by next year, they plan to be turning old plastic into raw materials for 50,000 tons of good-as-new plastics like high-density polyethylene (which among other things, makes an excellent hard hat).

Maybe this is a good moment for a word about what exactly, plastic is.  The plastic products we use come out of laboratories and factories.  But what makes plastic in the first place, comes right out of the ground — usually oil or natural gas.  That oil and natural gas is separated into individual components, then processed at the molecular level, meaning those “raw” molecules are broken apart and from that comes our gasoline and diesel and jet fuels, along with the petrochemicals that are used in making plastics and other products we all use.

And that — leads us to what might be the final frontier in re-using plastic.  Taking old plastic apart, molecule by molecule — and turning it back into those original petrochemicals — then starting all over from scratch, using the newly-created petrochemicals, to make new plastics.  (The “circular economy”, they call it.)

Chevron Phillips Chemical and INEOS, for instance, are taking up the task of re-using another challenging plastic, polystyrene — which is the stuff Styrofoam is made from — also egg cartons, disposable razors, and if you’ve still got any CDs — those CD cases.  But this time, the approach is turning that polystyrene (the polymer) into its chemical starting point, styrene (the monomer) — and then starting over with that to make new polystyrene.

SABIC, another chemical maker, is also getting into the plastic re-maker business. They are working on a project to take pretty much any plastic — clean, dirty, grocery bags, phone cases, whatever — and “cook” it up, chemically speaking.  The result?  A plastic “oil” that can be broken down further into those “starting points”, like naphtha (an important petrochemical feedstock) or can be used as jet fuel (yes, a little Back to the Future-like).

So could we really use the same molecules over and over and over again?  Could our used water bottles become sweatshirts — our old sweatshirts become bumpers — our used bumpers become bicycles — and our old bicycles become houses?

Think of it like a set of LEGOS (which are made of plastic — acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene engineered copolymer — incidentally).  You take blue LEGOS, green LEGOS, red LEGOS, white LEGOS — long LEGOS, short LEGOS, L-shaped LEGOS, angled LEGOS — thick LEGOS, thin LEGOS.  From all those LEGOS, you can make (almost) anything.  Then when you’re done, you take them apart — make a pile of all those individual LEGOS — start over and make (almost) anything, again.

That’s what we’re working on today.  Taking apart plastic products, molecule by molecule — separating those molecules into “piles” — and starting over to make new plastics.  Can that really be done?  Yes.  How much can it be done?  We’re going to find out.

There won’t be any single solution that will take care of all our old plastic.  And no solution will work without that change in how we think about our “old” plastics — as raw materials, not trash.

But with all of us on it — individuals to industries — there’s plenty of raw material to build the 21st century, right in our hands (and closets, and garages, and refrigerators, and…).

After all, if plastic was a product itself, an ad for plastic might well look like something from old-school late-night television:  “Plastic!  It slices!  It dices!  But wait, there’s more!”  Except that it would all be true.

* The new Ford Escape has an underbody shield made of recycled plastic — strong, durable, lightweight.

**Pavement made from recycled bottles is sixty percent stronger than a conventional road, and it’s projected to last two to three times as long.