CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — What is written on the glass partitions in this chemistry lab may look like another language, but it could be the key to unlocking a solution to America's plastic predicament.
"There is no silver bullet,” said Frank Leibfarth, a professor of chemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "It's a gigantic problem."
Leibfarth and his fellow researchers are dedicated to figuring out how the plastic we use every day could be turned into something useful and better.
"Many people throw their plastics in a recycling bin, right?” he said. "Most of those actually do not get reused into new materials."
In fact, very little plastic gets recycled at all. Unlike paper, of which nearly 70% gets recycled, only 5% of America's annual 35 million tons of plastic is recycled.
One type that makes up 55% of the world's plastic is called polyolefins, which can be especially problematic.
"They're typically the hardest materials to recycle," Leibfarth said. "You can fill up the Houston Texans’ football stadium to the top every two days. So, the question my lab set out to answer is, 'What do we do with all that?'”
Part of the issue comes down to the chemical bonds that make up plastic. It makes them hard to recycle.
"For instance, a water bottle, a plastic water bottle, might eventually get recycled and turn into carpet but there's very little closed-loop recycling, and that means a material actually gets used for its original purpose after its initial use that occurs in the United States or around the world," he said.
In other words, a water bottle cannot be recycled and made into a new water bottle. Facilities where that can happen are rare and mostly located in Europe.
“In the U.S., that does not happen at all," Leibfarth said.
Aiming to change that, researchers in Chapel Hill began experimenting.
"This is a sheet of polyethylene, which can be found in yogurt cups or milk jugs, all sorts of different polymer materials,” said Eliza Neidhart, a chemistry PhD candidate, “and this is the material that we start with."
Turns out, with some chemical finagling, the recycled plastic could be turned into a stronger material than it was before.
What could it be used for?
"It's used in about 50% of the golf balls as kind of the second coating within the golf balls,” Leibfarth said. “It's used in a lot of yoga mats or high-strength plastic packaging."
However, researchers say more work needs to be done in order to scale up what is happening in this lab.
"There is no one technology that's going to solve this problem," Leibfarth said. "Even small advances in this area really can catalyze much, much more sustainable use of plastics."
It could potentially create a detour to what's now a one-way road for plastics.