Plastics Recycling Update

IBM breakthrough could spark greater e-plastics recovery

A lab operated by tech giant IBM has developed a one-step method for recycling polycarbonates into high-performance engineering plastics.

Staffers at IBM Research in San Jose, Calif. discovered a chemical process to convert polycarbonate (PC) into plastics safe for water purification, fiber optics and medical equipment. IBM’s work involved recycling old CDs by adding a fluoride reactant, a base and heat. The process creates a type of thermoplastic polymer called polyaryl ether sulfone (PSU).

“PSUs are high-performance engineering thermoplastics that are commonly used for reverse osmosis and water purification membranes, medical equipment, as well as high temperature applications,” the researchers wrote in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a peer-reviewed journal.

PC is commonly used in consumer electronics in the form of LED screens, smartphones and Blu-rays, Gavin O. Jones, a staff member at IBM Research, stated in a press release. There is no publicly available data tracking the recycling rate of PC, but the research paper noted the plastic is typically sent to landfill or incineration.

Another researcher at the San Jose lab, Jeanette Garcia, called the e-plastics advancement “an environmental win on many fronts.”

Garcia recently made headlines with another one of her plastics discoveries. She developed a new family of fully recyclable polymers called polyhexahydrotriazine (PHT). The tough thermoset plastic is lightweight, solvent-resistant and has the ability to self-heal.

IBM Research is an innovation division within the larger IBM corporation. It operates 12 labs around the world.

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