Revolutionary: Creating useful substances from plastic

Two engineers from the ETH Lausanne (EPFL) are revolutionising the recycling of plastic: following the example of proteins, something new and useful is to be created after the decomposition of plastic.

Engineers Francesco Stellacci (left) and Simone Giaveri at work in the lab.

The problem is well known: Every person consumes an average of 30 kilograms of plastic per year. Multiplied by the number of people on earth and their lifetime, this is an almost unimaginable amount. Even biodegradable plastics leave behind residues when they decompose, which have to be buried, thus costing agricultural land and changing the ecosystem.

A partial solution to the problem “could very well come from nature itself,” researchers at EPFL Lausanne are now convinced. Proteins provide the model for this. In nature, they break down into individual amino acids, which are reassembled by the cells to form new proteins. In the laboratory, the EPFL team succeeded, for example, in transforming silk into a protein used in biomedical engineering.

The best is yet to come

Plastics, like proteins, are polymers. Therefore, the mechanisms that occur naturally in proteins could also be applied to plastics, according to the revolutionary new way of thinking. However, the researchers say that there are still a number of difficulties to overcome before this can happen. Nevertheless, this approach seems to be the only one that really corresponds to the postulate of the circular economy. “In the future, sustainability will mean throwing many different objects together and recycling the mixture to produce a different new material every day,” writes EPFL.

Written by: sda

Photos: EPFL/Alain Herzog

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