Plastic Pollution: Can Turning Plastic Trash Into Lubricant Oils Solve Problem?

Single-use plastics may soon be used to produce high-quality liquid products, such as motor oils, lubricants, detergents and cosmetics. Researchers discovered a new recycling method that gives even low-quality plastics a new purpose in the market. 

Estimates show that the industry produces 380 million tons of plastic every year around the world. That number is expected to grow four times by 2050. 

To date, over 75 percent of all plastics can only be used once, according to Phys.org. Single-use plastics have been causing problems in the environment because they commonly end up in the oceans and waterways.

Plastic pollution can harm wildlife and increase humans’ exposure to toxins. Plastics do not degrade and only break up into smaller plastics, called microplastics. These very small materials can be ingested by marine animals and humans. 

Another problem is that existing recycling methods that melt and reprocess plastics can produce only low-quality commercial products. To address these issues, researchers used a method to make plastics useful again. 

The team used platinum nanoparticles placed on nanocubes that could remain stable even under high temperatures and pressures. Researchers also applied a technique called atomic layer deposition, which enabled them to precisely control nanoparticles.

The technique simply breaks the plastic's carbon-carbon bond to produce high-quality liquid hydrocarbons. The new liquids can processed to produce useful products, such as motor oil, lubricants and waxes.

The study, published in the journal ACS Central Science, shows that the new recycling method not only created useful and stronger materials but it also produced significantly less waste than other methods. Traditional recycling processes melt plastic, which releases greenhouse gases and toxic byproducts to the air. 

"Our team is delighted to have discovered this new technology that will help us get ahead of the mounting issue of plastic waste accumulation," Kenneth Poeppelmeier, lead researcher and a professor at Northwestern University, said. "Our findings have broad implications for developing a future in which we can continue to benefit from plastic materials, but do so in a way that is sustainable and less harmful to the environment and potentially human health."

Researchers hope the plastic recycling method would help address the growing plastic pollution and contribute to the economy by delivering new commercial products to the market at the same time.

Plastic Pollution Estimates show the ocean already contains 1.4 million trillion microfibers and nearly 10 species of marine animals ingested plastics. Pixabay

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