Editor's Spotlight

Can plastic waste be transformed in to cosmetic and personal care ingredients?

By Deanna Utroske

- Last updated on GMT

© Getty Images \ (Irina Vodneva)
© Getty Images \ (Irina Vodneva)

Related tags Plastic upcycling Wax Research Chemistry

In an article published late last year in the ACS journal Central Science, researchers document how polyethylene can be catalytically upcycled into liquid lubricants and waxes.

Researchers from the Catalysis Science Program in the Chemical Sciences and Engineering division at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Argonne National Laboratory, from Northwestern University, Cornell University, University of South Carolina, and the University of California, Santa Barbara, teamed up to explore how plastic can be restructured chemically.

“There are certainly things we can do as a society to reduce consumption of plastics in some cases, 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,”​ says Aaron Sadow, scientist and team leader of the project at Ames Laboratory, in an item posted to nanowerk.com.

In fact, according to that same item on the nanowerk site, “manufacturers now produce nearly 400 million tons of plastic every year worldwide, and that number could jump fourfold by 2050.”

Using chemistry to make plastic waste into functional liquids

The one-line synopsis of the researchers' article, Upcycling Single-Use Polyethylene into High-Quality Liquid Products describes the whole project this way: “Single-use polyethylene is converted into value-added high-quality liquid products by a catalytic upcycling process using platinum nanoparticles supported on perovskites.”

And the article abstract gives a bit more detail, explaining that in the published study, polyethylene macromolecules (like those comprising a plastic bag) undergo an accelerated reaction that uses a suspension of nanoparticles, “supported on SrTiO3 perovskite nanocuboids by atomic layer deposition,” ​to cleave the carbon-to-carbon bonds, with the help of pressure, heat, and time, of course.

Making something better out of waste plastic

The waxes and lubricants that result from this catalytic process are not only purported to be  better, in the scheme of things, than waste plastic itself, they are ostensibly of higher-quality to industry than the original plastic.  

According to the published research article, “waxes, for example, are intensively employed in coatings to enhance electrical insulation, thermal stability, surface nature, friction stability, and heat and chemical resistance.”​ And, the Argonne National Laboratory piece on nanowerk goes so far as to say that “the waxes can be processed into everyday products like detergents and cosmetics.”

“Our team is delighted to have discovered this new technology that will help us get ahead of the mounting issue of plastic waste accumulation,” ​researcher Kenneth R. Poeppelmeier, tells the press.

“Our findings,” ​he says, “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.”

Read more about chemically upcycling single-use polyethylene in the full-text ACS Central Science article online here.



Upcycling and plastic waste are commonplace topics in Deanna Utroske's coverage of the beauty industry​--but never quite like this before. 
Deanna is a leading voice in the cosmetics and personal care industry as well as in the indie beauty movement. As Editor of CosmeticsDesign.com, she writes daily news about the business of beauty in the Americas region and regularly produces video interviews with cosmetics, fragrance, personal care, and packaging experts as well as with indie brand founders.
Deanna will be speaking next at the Uplink Live event in LA this month​ (save 10% on tickets with code: CD10) and at Green Beauty Night in February​.

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