Most people would probably agree that recycling is a good thing but how to actually achieve this is easier said than done. Kerbside recycling is now standard practice but there is no consensus on how much of waste for recycling is actually recycled: plastic waste in particular is often burnt, buried or exported, rather than actually recycled.
Part of the problem is that this type of waste is difficult to recycle, making it a low value commodity. Work published this month in the journal Science by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison addresses this problem head-on, by combining two known chemical processes. Plastic is first degraded to form a product called pyrolysis oil and the alkenes within this are then recovered and catalytically converted to aldehydes and then commercially useful alcohols.
The researchers report that this upgrading of pyrolysis oil uses scalable existing technology and techniques, taking $100/ton waste plastic and creating $1200-$6000/ton alcohols.
The lead researcher, Professor George Huber, is frequently identified as an inventor in patent applications, most recently in a publication in May this year concerning another invention focused on plastic recycling. If a patent application has been filed on this latest technology as well, it is likely to be the combination of existing technologies that will be key to patentability.
I will keep a lookout for a patent application from these researchers. In the meantime, I look forward to seeing this and other emerging technologies driving up actual recycling.