Can We Transform Our Plastics Into Cosmetics? New Study Discovers Revolutionary Way To Recycle

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Many environmentalists and researchers alike have warned about the dangerous ways we unknowingly ingest microplastics in our everyday lives. They're in our water, our clothing, and—in some cases—our food. While there are too many of these synthetics already out there to eradicate them for good, we should be mindful of the many ways we can reduce our plastic use, not only to better our own health but also to protect our fragile marine environments.   

But a new study shows that it might be possible to reduce our plastic use with… plastic? 

Yes, you read that right: Scientists have discovered a new method to recycle low-value, single-use plastics into high-quality liquid products, meaning products like motor oils, lubricants, detergents, and even cosmetics might be derived from plastic—and that might be totally OK! 

The study, published in the journal ACS Central Science, details the catalytic method that transforms the substance using a chemical reaction (this process is usually done with heat or pressure) and repurposes the plastic into familiar commercial products. 

Although reprocessing plastic isn't a new idea, past methods have typically melted plastic products down to create a recycled product that might not look as nice or structurally strong (think of a molded park bench made from plastic bottles or a cool new T-shirt from plastic fibers). This new process not only makes higher quality, more versatile products, but it actually does so in a way that produces far less waste. In traditional recycling methods that melt plastics, scientists can generate greenhouse gases or toxic byproducts during the process.

Lead researcher Kenneth R. Poeppelmeier, Ph.D., says, "Our findings have broad implications for developing a future in which we can continue to benefit from plastic materials but do so in a way that is sustainable and less harmful to the environment and potentially human health." 

What is this revolutionary process?

The research team used a specific catalyst that—under moderate pressure and temperature—breaks up the plastic's carbon-carbon bond and transforms it into high-quality liquid hydrocarbons. 

The particular nanoparticles of this catalyst are filled with scientific jargon that I won't even try to list here, but just know that it's exceptionally unique from the other commercially available catalysts on the market. Those traditional catalysts result in shorter hydrocarbons from plastic, which in turn yields lower-quality recycled products. 

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Plastic: Friend or foe?

As mentioned, these liquid hydrocarbons could be used in things like motor oil, lubricants, and waxes, and they can even be further processed to make ingredients for detergents and cosmetics. 

It might be unnerving to use a laundry detergent or beauty product with recycled plastic on its ingredient list—as someone who has a valid fear of silicone in my skin care, I totally get it. But if adding repurposed plastic to common oils can help mitigate our plastic pollution crisis, these positive effects on climate change definitely outweigh any apprehension.  

So, the question remains: Could this be the silver lining (or shall we say, the plastic lining?) we need in order to finally conquer plastic pollution? Co-leader Aaron D. Sadow, Ph.D., seems to think so. "There are certainly things we can do as a society to reduce consumption of plastics in some cases," he says. "But there will always be instances where plastics are difficult to replace, so we really want to see what we can do to find value in the waste."

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