MADISON, WI (SPECTRUM NEWS) — Less than nine percent of plastic in the U.S. Are recycled according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Worldwide that number is about 20 percent according to a study by a group called Our World in Data.
Thousands of tonnes of plastic every year ends up in landfills and the ocean.
UW-Madison professor of chemical and biological engineering George Huber has helped pioneer a more efficient way of recycling plastics.
He is also co-founder and board member of a company called Anellotech, which plans on using his technology to recycle plastics.
“Our goal is to commercialize this,” Huber said.
The idea is melting plastics down to their most basic chemical makeup, allowing all of the plastic that goes in to be reconstructed back into what you would see in packaging, cars, or clothing. It's a process called pyrolisis.
Huber says only about a quarter of the plastic we put in our bins is even capable of being recycled.
“Most plastics we can't recycle, we don't have the technology today to do it,” Huber said.
The traditional way is mechanically grinding down the plastics then reusing them.
Even that compromises the material makeup of the plastics and isn't fully restorative. Huber said that's the reason you see plastics with labels that say something along the lines of 'made with 70 percent recycled plastics.'
“So that's kind of what we're doing, is we're heating it up, except we're heating it up without oxogen, so then we make a liquid and we collect the liquid,” Huber said.
Huber started Anellotech with David Sudolsky. Initially they used pyrolisis to melt down wood into materials that could be used for plant-based packaging.
Now they are converting that facility to a plastics pyrolisis one. It's a pilot plant, with an 80-foot tall pilot plant facility in Texas working towards being commercial.
“We see it going around the country and also go around the world,” Sudolsky said.
Sudolsky is CEO of Anellotech. The company recently received a large investment from a group of 12 Japanese companies to commercialize the process. Anellotech has received investments from European companies too, but none from U.S. Ones.
Ideally, Anellotech plans on buying recyclable plastics then melting them down to and selling the liquid as raw material — Huber said it behaves the same as the virgin material.
Allenotech sees their method being part of plastic supply chain by 2027.
“That's really important because cost really matters in all of these applications,” Sudolsky said.
“Basically it means that instead of these waste plastics getting dumped, or burned, or landfilled people will collect them and bring them to recycling.”
The process could keep thousands of pounds of plastics out of our landfills and oceans.
While initial investments are expensive into developing the technology at a meaningful level, Huber says it's an important investment.
“We really have no long-term plan for plastics in this country and we really need to develop what we're going to do with our most common waste,” Huber said.
Which is why huber and fellow researchers at UW developed the process in the first place, recently publishing a study showing its potential.
“We'd like the university of Wisconsin and the state of Wisconsin to really become leaders in plastic recycling,” Huber said.