Modern civilization is highly dependent on plastics for everything from consumer goods packaging to structural materials to medical applications, but the environmental cost is high. Plastics are generally non-biodegradable Researchers developed a completely recyclable polymer. Source: Bill Cotton/Colorado State UniversityResearchers developed a completely recyclable polymer. Source: Bill Cotton/Colorado State Universityand since not all can be recycled, discarded products seem destined to perpetually clog landfills and pollute oceans.

Now, Colorado State University researchers report progress in achieving a closed-loop approach toward a circular plastics economy. A new polymer engineered with many of the same light weight, strength and durability properties of petroleum-based plastics is also recyclable. The monomer can be converted back into its initial small-molecule form without the use of hazardous chemicals or complex procedures.

The material is polymerized in a solvent-free, room temperature process that requires a minimal amount of catalyst. The butyrolactone-based polymer performs like a plastic as it possesses desirable thermal stability, crystallinity and high molecular weight properties. The major difference is that it can be recycled back into its parent monomeric state and then re-polymerized for sustainable reuse.

While the new polymer technology has only been demonstrated at the academic lab scale the researchers suggest that further refinements can result in polymers that can be chemically recycled infinitely. Efforts now focus on optimizing the monomer synthesis process and developing, new, cost-effective routes to such polymers.

To contact the author of this article, email shimmelstein@globalspec.com