Plastic Waste To Soap 🧼: We have written blogs about different discoveries in regards to dealing with plastic, but nothing quite like this! We can now figuratively ‘wash our hands’ of plastic waste, as scientists have unexpectedly found a way to turn plastic waste into soap. Find out how these researchers transformed different types of plastic into ‘surfactants’ and more by reading this blog!

Up to this day, a month before 2023 officially ends, plastic waste is still a significant problem in Australia.

We have shared some alarming statistics shared by Accumulate on plastic that definitely should make us ponder. So, these are 10 facts that you should take note of:

Some plastic facts to take note of

  • Australia consumes close to 3.5 million tonnes of plastic every year.
  • In a single year, the average Australian citizen discards 130 kg of plastic.
  • One million metric tonnes of single-use plastic are used annually in Australia.
  • About 4.5 billion single-use HDPE plastic bags are used annually in Australia.
  • 12.4% of all waste is recycled nationally in Australia.
  • Plastic garbage is just 13.1% recovered.
  • Almost half of all plastic garbage is generated by households.
  • Every year, 130,000 tons of plastics leak into Australia’s maritime ecosystem.
  • Just 36% of Australia’s PET plastic bottles are recycled.
  • Every day, over 9 million single-use plastic straws are used in Australia.

As a result of this, we should look for sustainable solutions to deal with the growing plastic waste.

One recent discovery to deal with plastic waste is by turning it into soap. Although the discovery did not happen in Australia, we would still like to blog and share about it, as this could benefit us all on a global scale and help Aussies specifically deal with their plastic waste problem. So, let us talk about it more below.


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So, how did these scientists transform plastic waste into soap?

Scientists from Virginia Tech developed a new and innovative method to transform plastics into valuable chemicals known as surfactants. These surfactants play a crucial role in producing items like soap, detergent and more.

Whilst plastics and soaps might seem quite different in how they look and what they’re used for, there’s a surprising connection between them at a molecular level. For instance, polyethylene, a widely used plastic, shares a remarkably similar chemical structure with fatty acids, which serve as a foundation for making soap.

Both materials consist of lengthy carbon chains, yet fatty acids possess an additional group of atoms at the chain’s end. So, this similarity on a molecular level allows for the transformation of plastic into useful substances like surfactants, opening new possibilities for recycling and repurposing plastics.

 

More on the scientists

Guoliang “Greg” Liu, a chemistry associate professor at Virginia Tech College of Science, noticed the striking similarity between polyethylene and fatty acids. As a result, this resemblance sparked an idea: converting polyethylene into fatty acids and, with a few adjustments, using them to create soap.

However, the challenge lay in breaking a long polyethylene chain into several shorter ones, but not too short, and doing it efficiently. Liu saw this as an opportunity to develop a fresh method of recycling. His vision was to transform low-value plastic waste into a high-value and practical product, offering a new way to repurpose plastics for beneficial use.

“Firewood is mostly made of polymers such as cellulose. The combustion of firewood breaks these polymers into short chains, and then into small gaseous molecules before full oxidation to carbon dioxide,” said Liu, holder of the Blackwood Junior Faculty Fellowship of Life Sciences in the Department of Chemistry.”

“If we similarly break down the synthetic polyethylene molecules but stop the process before they break all the way down to small gaseous molecules, then we should obtain short-chain, polyethylene-like molecules.”

 

From plastic waste to soap: learning the production of surfactants

Liu and his team created a unique device, a special reactor to transform plastic waste into surfactants, which will inevitably turn into soap afterwards. This special reactor heats and condenses plastic in a way that changes it into a waxy substance with shorter carbon chains.

Working alongside Zhen Xu and Eric Munyaneza, two chemistry Ph.D. students in Liu’s laboratory, Liu constructed a small, oven-like device. This special contraption allowed them to heat polyethylene using a method called temperature-gradient thermolysis. In this process, the lower part of the oven reached a high temperature, breaking down the polymer chains, whilst the upper part stayed cool to prevent further breakdown.

Upon the completion of the thermolysis process, they collected the residue, similar to the cleaning of soot from a chimney. Afterwards, and much to their delight, they discovered that Liu’s intuition was accurate: the residue consisted of what’s termed “short-chain polyethylene,” or more precisely, waxes.

Then, by adding groups of oxygen atoms to the ends of these chains and treating them with a special alkaline solution, the researchers converted this wax into a surfactant.

To make this surfactant into soap, they mixed it with a dash of dye and fragrance, creating small soap bars. This innovative process showcased how we could turn plastic into a useful product like soap through clever chemical steps and treatments.

Similarly, this finding showcased how they successfully transformed polyethylene into a different form (in this case, soap) through controlled heating and cooling, opening new possibilities for recycling plastic waste.

 

More information about Waster

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Please call 1300 WASTER (1300 927 837). You can also email us at enquiries@waster.com.au if you have any further questions. Find the best deals in terms of waste and recycling pricing and services!

 

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