Plastics in all their forms are a cornerstone of our society, but when they were developed over 5 decades ago the end-of-life of these materials was mostly ignored. It is now becoming apparent that plastics pollution is causing an environmental crisis and a risk to our health and well-being. In addition, almost all plastics are produced from fossil resources, thus contributing to climate change. To tackle these two grand challenges, we urgently need to transition plastics into a more sustainable circular economy. For this, new approaches and technologies for plastics recycling are sorely needed.
In this context, chemical recycling offers exciting opportunities. By depolymerizing plastics, we can enable re-synthesis of high-quality materials (closed-loop recycling) or convert them into new, value-added materials (open-loop recycling, or upcycling). Together with colleagues from NREL, MIT, and the University of Portsmouth, MIX-UP partners from the Forschungszentrum Jülich have evaluated the opportunities provided by chemical and biological catalysis for plastics deconstruction, recycling, and upcycling. The interdisciplinary team comprehensively reviews chemical, enzymatic, and biological approaches to tackle the plastics problem, taking into account diverse aspects such as polymer properties, assay development, and process technology. They highlight key challenges and opportunities to realize catalysis-enabled chemical circularity for polymers of today, and those of the future.
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