CLEVELAND — A team of researchers at Case Western Reserve University is about to begin a three-year journey to figure out ways to improve how common plastics are recycled. The project was made possible by a $2.5 million grant through the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).
The team will develop and test a recycling practice, with help from government and industrial partners, called upcycling. The process involves breaking down polymers and purifying them to make another plastic product. If the project, and tests, are successful, it would dramatically improve on a historical recycling rate of below 10% industry-wide.
"The idea is exactly to keep it at a cost very close to the regular mechanical recycling," said João Maia, a professor in Macromolecular Science and Engineering at CWRU. "We would like to recycle, but not just recycle, recycle and keep them at the same value."
Maia said upcycling is expensive currently because it is energy-intensive and it requires a lot of solvents, so it's difficult to recycle using the method on a large scale. The project's lead professor said their mission is to come up with a method that would use machines typically involved in mechanical recycling instead of using chemical reactors - getting the best of both worlds.
Mechanical recycling, Maia said, is the most common form of plastic recycling. It's a low-cost and high-volume form. However, most recycled materials through this method aren't used in their original form because of issues like food and separation.
Maia said recycling and waste must be addressed for a better future and he is confident the CWRU team is qualified for the job.
"We're one of the highest ranks departments in polymer engineering in the country, in polymer science and engineering in the country. So we feel that this is part of our mission. We look at this project as the first of many," he said. "This could be a real, real game-changer."