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Scientists develop a truly recyclable plastic. Is the world ready for it?

The average American generates 220 pounds of plastic waste each year. A vast majority of it is not recycled, even if you send it to a recycling facility. Most plastic ends up in a dump.

There are all sorts of reasons for this. Some recycling facilities don’t have the technology to sort plastic correctly. And for companies, it’s actually cheaper to make “virgin” plastic than to produce recycled plastic. Recycled plastic is far from perfect anyway. Generally produced by melting down old plastic, recycled plastic actually needs virgin plastic mixed in to keep its structure. An estimated 91% of all plastic isn’t recycled at all.

But researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the Department of Energy have been studying an enticing, new type of plastic. Called polydiketoenamine, or PDK, it’s an infinitely recyclable material. Literally 100% of it can be reclaimed and reshaped into a new plastic item as many times as a company could want.

How could a new plastic be better than old plastic? Our traditional plastics, such as polypropylene milk jugs and nylon stockings, were developed in the 1930s to be cheap and easy to mass-produce out of byproducts from the oil industry. Through that lens, they were miraculous, and they enabled breakthroughs in consumer products, from squeeze bottles to Tupperware. The problem is that nearly 100 years later, this miracle material is completely embedded in everything we make and do—and it’s killing the planet. Realistically, we can’t eliminate plastic from the supply chain, and even if we did, that wouldn’t solve the world’s climate crisis. Even more-organic materials, such as cotton, are a drain on natural resources. Which is why many experts are making a pitch for recycling to be easier—be it through the materials themselves, or recycling facilities, or ideally, both.

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