Scientists supported by the U.S. Dept. of Energy (DOE) have developed a two-stage technique involving bioengineered microbes that can break down many types of plastics at once, allowing them to be upcycled or converted into another useful chemical product.
Although many plastics are recyclable, the process of collecting, sorting, and recycling plastic waste is expensive and complex. Billions of tons of plastic have been improperly discarded and have leached into the environment in the form of microplastics, which damage ecosystems and can be harmful to human health.
Under the current infrastructure, only two types of plastics are readily recyclable: polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which makes up water bottles, and high-density polyethylene (HDPE), which comprises containers like milk jugs. However, PET and HDPE represent just two of the thousands of varieties of plastics that are on the market today.
Mixed plastics in particular represent one of recycling’s biggest challenges. These items are ubiquitous in daily life — they are used in food packaging and clothing, for example — but their compositions vary widely. This makes it difficult to recycle them using a single chemical process.
To address this problem, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)...
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