USA Podcast: Rethinking Plastic Recycling

As American consumers well know, plastics are everywhere. And the recycling process is more complex than you might think.

“When we throw our plastics in the trash, we don’t get quite the same materials back,” said Anne McNeil, professor of chemistry at the University of Michigan. “The mechanical recycling process that we’ve developed over the past 50 years is really a recycling process that takes the high-quality materials we put in the trash and downgrades them into lower-quality products.”

She explained that by mixing all the colors and all the additives used in the plastics, the recycled product does not retain all the properties of the original product. McNeil’s research involves finding ways to break down recycled plastic into chemical components that can be more easily reused.

Last year, McNeil worked with Procter & Gamble, a major diaper manufacturer, to find a second life for materials used in diapers. His team subjects the polymers used in the diapers to a chemical transformation, tweaking the material’s purpose while retaining its original chemical structure.

“And so, at the end of the day, what was once a super absorbent material is now actually a really good adhesive.”

McNeil also continued his quest to reduce waste outside of the lab. Last year on Earth Day, his team picked up around 6,000 pieces of trash around Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, with the help of about 50 volunteers.

“We put together a group of teams with four or five people who went to different parks to pick up plastics, and it was such a fun event for everyone. We got great feedback and it had a huge impact,” McNeil said.

They ended up holding a second event in the fall, and McNeil has 80 volunteers lined up for this year’s Earth Day cleanup.

Despite her work both in and out of the lab to create a greener world, McNeil said she wonders if these efforts will be enough to have a meaningful impact on the climate crisis. On the one hand, it recognizes a real push towards action among the younger generations, as well as certain companies.

“The question is, are we going to get there, you know, in my lifetime or in my children’s lifetime? And this one, I don’t know. I really hope it’s my life, though.

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