When you recycle a plastic bottle, it doesn't necessarily become another plastic bottle.
Because of limitations in recycling technology, a common type of plastic used in water bottles and food containers weakens so much when it's recycled that it can't be used again for the same purpose. Some small amount of the plastic might make it into another bottle, but more often than not, it instead becomes synthetic carpet or clothing and can't easily be recycled a second time. So when those products are used up, they end up in landfills.
Researchers from IBM Corp. and Stanford University believe they have developed a way to significantly improve the quality of recycled plastic and strip away those limitations.
A new recycling method the researchers announced this week involves a way to break the plastic down so that it can be reused again and again in the same form. It is an advancement that could intrigue beverage companies and help cut the environmental damage in making plastic from scratch.
The innovation is a new family of catalysts that can reduce polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic to its basic building blocks, while retaining its original properties and making it "ridiculously economical" to build it back up again, said Bob Allen, senior manager of chemistry and functional materials for IBM's Almaden research center in Silicon Valley.
The project is in the laboratory on a small scale. Researchers are planning a bigger pilot at the King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology, home to Saudi Arabia's national laboratories. Allen said the technology could be commercially available within five years if the pilot goes well.
A critical question will be the price of the technology.
Andrew Williamson, a director with the venture capital firm Physic Ventures who has seen IBM's research, said it could help solve one of the biggest challenges facing food and beverage companies in designing environmentally friendly packaging. His firm invests money on behalf of two major food and beverage companies.
"These commodity plastics like PET are very low cost," Williamson said. "What they've come up with will have to prove to be competitive on cost, and that remains to be seen."