In California, tech giant IBM has invented a way to recycle dirty plastic materials and fabric. Researchers at the silicon-valley based company have developed “VolCat”, an alternative to traditional recycling.
The VolCat method replaces traditional recycling methods, whereby plants sort waste, wash it, separating out contaminants, chop it up and remelt it, resulting in lower-quality plastic that is unpopular with brands. IBM’s process uses chemical recycling, with a catalyst that can selectively digest the PET plastic inside the reactor. The process involves putting the waste in a pressure reactor, where it is disassembled into different materials, breaking down hard plastics in a powder and reducing cotton-polyester cloth into two, creating balls of pure cotton and polyester powder. The senior manager of chemistry and materials at IBM Research, Bob Allen, described the process; “”Plastic bottles, containers, and PET-based fabrics are collected, ground up, and combined with a chemical catalyst in a pressure cooker set to above 200 degrees Celsius. With heat and a small amount of pressure, the catalyst is able to digest and clean the ground-up plastic, and the process separates contaminants (e.g., food residue, glue, dirt, dyes, and pigments) from material that is useable for new PET. The useable matter (called a monomer) takes the form of a white powder, which can be fed directly into a polyester reactor to make brand new plastics.”
This machine will not require any washing at all, according to IBM. This method is doubly valuable as it can process items that are typically hard to recycle, such as carpets, buckets, toys and clothing. The resultant substances can be fed back into plastic manufacturing machines in order to make new products.
The VolCat methods holds great potential, not only because it could greatly reduce the demand for Virgin Plastic but this method would also mean that less fossil fuel will be needed for the process of producing plastic products, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions. IBM is currently in talks with partners about running a larger pilot test to assess whether the approach is economical on a large scale. The company believes that the system can be implemented into existing plastic production plants.