For researchers at University of California Santa Barbara, one person’s single-use packaging is another person’s useful raw material. In a paper published in the journal Chem they have reimagined the value of single-use plastics, with improvements to an innovative process that can turn polyolefins, the most common type of polymer in single-use packaging, into valuable alkylaromatics—molecules that underlie surfactants, the main components of detergents and other useful chemicals.

With further improvements, this method could be on its way to becoming a viable commercial process, according to Scott (professor Susannah Scott). The ultimate goal is to bring it into wide use, which would enable and incentivize the recovery of single-use plastics. Using waste plastics as a highly abundant raw material, chemical companies could take the alkylaromatic molecules resulting from this process and transform them into the surfactants that are formulated into soaps, washing liquids, cleansers and other detergents.

Using waste material ensures that no additional greenhouse gas emissions are produced to create the feedstock, but the energy required to run the catalytic process and separate the desired molecules would have to be factored in before scaling up, Scott said. If it passes muster, the method could displace the more fossil fuel-intensive processes that go into creating surfactants from scratch.


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