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Plastic is manufactured and used by people in much the same way as other products. This material remains permanently in landfills. This plastic waste problem is his one of the biggest environmental hurdles we face. Innovative solutions have been explored, but many require special chemicals or even insects to dispose of plastic waste. Scientists at Virginia Tech  recently discovered a new approach that uses simple heat to convert polyethylene into the fatty acids that are the basis of soaps, laundry detergents and other valuable products, published in the journal Science.

Most modern consumer plastics are made of polyethylene. Guoliang "Greg" Liu,  associate professor at Virginia Tech, found that the structure of the long carbon chains is relatively similar to that of fatty acids. The latter is a carbon chain with a cluster of atoms at one end. But how do you transform one into the other? Liu was inspired by fire that turns wood into smoke. "Firewood is primarily composed of polymers such as cellulose. When firewood burns, these polymers break down into short chains and then into smaller gaseous molecules before being completely oxidised to carbon dioxide." he said in a statement. "If you break down a synthetic polyethylene molecule in a similar way and stop the process before it completely breaks down into smaller gaseous molecules, you should get a short-chain polyethylene-like molecule."

Liu and his lab, along with  graduate students Zhen Xu and Eric Munyaneza, developed the boiler system. Plastics, such as those used in PET bottles, can be heated in an oven-like reactor. Higher temperatures further down the tank break the chains of the polymer plastic, but lower temperatures slow this degradation as the tank rises. The wax short chain polyethylene can then be removed from the reactor. This substance, known as a surfactant, is used in soaps and detergents. A few simple steps will transform you into such a quality product. This new method of upcycling plastic has many advantages. One is that it can be used with polypropylene, another common plastic.

This eliminates the need to separate plastics by type. Plus, it lacks the enzymes, worms, and other complexities found in other systems. Finally, the demand for soaps and related products is high, so this process of reducing plastics to fatty acids is economically rational and may  encourage investment. The researchers responsible for this new method have high hopes. 

“We should recognise that plastic pollution is more of a global issue than a problem of just a few mainstream countries. It may be more accessible to  other countries," Xu said. “We hope this is a good start in the fight against plastic pollution.”

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