The Circularity of Plastics | University of Oxford

The Circularity of Plastics

Plastics are polymers made up of repeating units of individual small organic molecules joined together by chemical bonds. Since their discovery only some 70 years ago, they have become ubiquitous and integral in our society.

Turtle lying upside down on a beach with a plastic bottleSafe disposal or recycling of plastic waste is a monumental challenge.
Humankind produces over 320 million tons every year and that figure is ever-growing. Their safe disposal or recycling is recognised, world-wide, as a monumental challenge. Astonishingly, only 9% of the 8.3 billion tons ever produced has been recycled, the rest being incinerated, sent to landfill or worst of all, dumped into the oceans. Plastic waste is now one of the most urgent environmental issues of our time.

The Oxford team have taken a new approach, viewing plastic waste as an untapped resource and have discovered a range of innovative solutions to converting plastics into fuels, and hydrogen. Most recently the team has developed a novel and sustainable catalytic system and process to deconstruct – or depolymerize – plastics into their basic constituents with extremely high efficiency, ready for conversion back into new polymers. Their patented process – rapid and highly effective – has been demonstrated on real-world plastic waste which contains, inevitably, numerous contaminants. Importantly, the novel Oxford catalysts are abundant and inexpensive and can be easily recycled and re-used without any noticeable changes in their activity, making this process much more efficient than current “Recycling-from-plastic-waste processes”.

This innovative science and technology heralds an exciting new era of applications for the responsible and sustainable recycling of plastic waste, in which plastic polymers are efficiently converted back to their original high-value constituents. This now allows an inspiring vision of a truly Circular Economy for plastics. The Oxford advances not only minimize environmental pollution but also reduce our dependence on non-renewable petrochemicals for plastics production. With the help of Oxford University Innovation, this work is now being progressed commercially via the spin out company Oxford Sustainable Fuels.