Revolutionizing recycling: UW-Madison research team works to find better ways to reuse plastics

MADISON, Wis. – Kevin Sanchez-Rivera spends many hours in the first-floor labs of the engineering building on campus, just a block or so away from Camp Randall. The graduate student feels like the scientific community has a responsibility to figure out a way to make sure plastics are used more than once.

His supervisor, George Huber, is leading the research that he says could change the way we recycle one of the most wasteful products on Earth.

The technology to recycle waste plastics is very inefficient. It can only work in some type, very pure waste plastics, and you use the properties of the plastics when you recycle them, so the technology is inefficient and expensive.

“The advantage of plastics is they’re very cheap, they’re very light-weight, they’re very strong, and they last forever,” Huber said. “But the fact that they last forever, it’s a good thing but it’s also a very negative thing that we need to learn to deal with.”

According to Huber, 40% of plastics produced worldwide go into landfills and 32% go directly into the environment. Another 14% are incinerated or burned for energy. Of the 14% of plastics that are recycled, 4% are lost in the recycling process. The other 10% can be repurposed, but most of those materials are made into lower-quality products.

Huber says a big reason for the discrepancy in the amount we recycle and the amount that actually become something new is the complex nature of plastics. What makes them so multi-functional also makes them hard to reuse.

“Plastics are, they’re the most commonly engineered material. They have a wide range of properties. You can make a whole bunch of different things out of plastics from a phone to a hard plastic bottle, and there’s so much engineering that goes into making the plastics that make them very complicated material. And then when we recycle them, they’re all contaminated,” Huber said.
Huber and his team are looking at ways to negate that contamination by separating all of the plastics that are mixed together to make every day items.

That’s where Reid Vanlehn comes in. Vanlehn is a chemical and biological engineer who concocts solvents to separate different plastic components from the same material. He uses computer simulations to see how molecules would react and whether certain solutions might be successful in the lab.

“If we do develop these recycling technologies, a lot of that plastic that was previously used once can be used hundreds of times, thousands of times, and that’s maybe a simple sounding change, but will be a dramatic improvement,” Vanlehn said.

Huber says any process or the team develops has to be affordable and accepted by industry partners to be successful. There’s already been some buy-in from an Appleton-based Amcor plant that has been providing plastic food wrapping that can be tested at the lab. Huber says some of the technology could be ready for implementation within the next few years.

“Really the goal is to say, ‘can we optimize these processes that are cost-effective, that are economically viable against current industrial processes, that they’ll really get adopted broadly as a competitive recycling technology here in the U.S.?'” Vahlen said.

“My goal is to develop the technology that will revolutionize the plastic industry and make plastics more biodegradable and recyclable and develop the technology that will allow us to more efficiently recycle plastics,” Huber said.