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IBM Research’s VolCat chemical recycling process can make PET monomer (bottom left) out of mixed/dirty post-consumer waste (top).
IBM Research’s VolCat chemical recycling process can make PET monomer (bottom left) out of mixed/dirty post-consumer waste (top).

Silicon Valley-based IBM developers recently invented a pressure reactor that uses a new recycling method, called VolCat, a catalytic chemical process that “selectively digests” polyesters (PETs) into a substance that can be fed directly back into plastic manufacturing machines in order to make new products.

Currently, more than 272 million metric tons of plastic is produced each year around the globe, with one-quarter of that made up of PET.

VolCat aims to use a precise combination of chemicals, heat and pressure to reduce this amount of plastic, and ultimately the amount of waste, produced. This could completely transform the way people discard and manufacture plastic in the next five years.

Everything from milk cartons to cookie containers to grocery bags and cheese cloths will be recyclable, and polyester manufacturing companies will be able to take in refuse and turn it into something useful.

As introduced, plastic bottles, containers, and PET-based fabrics are collected, ground up, and combined with a chemical catalyst in a pressure cooker set to above 200°C.

With heat and a small amount of pressure, the catalyst is able to digest and clean the ground-up plastic, and the process separates contaminants (e.g., food residue, glue, dirt, dyes, and pigments) from material that is useable for new PET.

The useable matter (called a monomer) takes the form of a white powder, which can be fed directly into a polyester reactor to make brand new plastics.

According to IBM, the machine will not require any sorting or washing at all. Not to mention, VolCat will even be able to process items that are typically very hard to recycle, including clothing, carpets, toys, buckets, and more.

Because it can use the dirty, low-value post-consumer materials, and the catalyst can be fully recycled, it keeps costs low. It also uses relatively little energy. 

The company is currently talking to partners about running a larger pilot test, to see if the approach is economical at scale.

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