The plastic problem – accumulation before alternatives

The plastic problem – accumulation before alternatives

By Karlee Bamford, Treasurer for the GCI

Plastics undoubtedly play a central role in our daily lives and played a pivotal role in the development of consumer societies across the globe for over a century. Concurrent with newfound materials and newfound possibilities, unprecedented environmental problems have emerged as a result of our reliance on plastics. The accumulation of plastics in allocated disposal sites (e.g. landfills) and in otherwise uninhabited spaces (e.g. beaches, open ocean) present threats to human health, water security, and food supply. These challenges now impact communities globally, irrespective of their actual contribution to the generation of plastic waste, and affect individuals of all economic backgrounds.

Figure 1. Examples of waste plastic accumulation in landfills and the environment. Images source: Pixabay.

Given the scale and significance of these challenges, is there anything that chemists can do to resolve this panhuman problem? A recent blog post from the Green Chemistry Initiative ( highlighted the advances that have been made in synthetic and materials chemistry towards plant-derived and biodegradable plastics as alternatives to traditional petroleum-derived plastics. While this is undoubtedly a crucial area of research as humanity has become permanently dependent on plastics, the design of next generation plastics that are inherently sustainable will not mitigate the overwhelming impacts of existing plastic waste. Arguably, attenuating the problem of plastic waste is more important than finding alternatives to traditional plastics. Indeed, the decomposition time for products made from the top four families of commodity plastics (PP, PE, PVC, PET), produced on a 224.6 million tonne-scale alone in 2017,1 is estimated at 1 to 600 years in marine environments2 and considerably longer in landfills due to lack of moisture.4

Figure 2. Examples of the top five most-produced commodity polymers and their production scale in 2017.1,3

Traditional plastic-recycling methods are not equipped to resolve the issue of waste plastic accumulation either. Recycling can be broken down into three distinct varieties: primary, secondary, and tertiary.5 Primary recycling, which is equivalent to repurposing or reusing, is used limitedly for products such as plastic bottles, typically made of PET, which be directly reused following the necessary sterilization. Secondary recycling involves mechanical processing of plastics into new materials and frequently results in reduction of the plastics overall quality or durability due to the thermal or chemical processes involved. Primary and secondary recycling account for the majority of recycling efforts, however, as a consequence of poor consumer compliance (e.g. <10 % in the US and 30-40 % in the EU)6 and the deteriorating value of plastics with repeated secondary recycling, all plastics eventually become waste. The last and most underutilized form of recycling is tertiary recycling, the degradation or depolymerization of plastics into useful chemicals or materials. In the last year alone, numerous high profile editorial and review articles have appeared in Science7,8,9 and Nature6,10 emphasizing the incredible potential of chemical (tertiary) recycling as means of reducing plastic waste and as a new, sustainable chemical feedstock for the polymer (plastics) industry.

The challenge of chemical recycling is immediately evident: plastics have been expertly designed to be highly durable and chemically resistant, and thus, plastics cannot be easily transformed chemically. Ideally, polymers used in plastics could be depolymerized to monomer for subsequent repolymerization. For condensation polymers, such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the reverse of the polymerization reaction is the addition of a small molecule to the polymer to reform monomer. While completely reversible on paper or in theory, such depolymerization strategies have had limited success for PET.

Reacting the polymeric PET material with protic reagents (e.g. amines, alcohols) followed by hydrolysis to give monomers that can be repolymerized, if of sufficient purity (Figure 3), requires high temperature (250-300 °C) and high pressure (0.1-4 MPa) conditions unless additives, such as strong acids and bases or metal salts, are used.11 The action of many additives is not well understood, thus precluding rational improvement of the system. Hydrolysis of PET itself, especially at neutral pH, is the most challenging approach to PET chemical recycling as water is a relatively poor nucleophile. Hence stronger nucleophiles, such as ethylene glycol, are preferred.

Figure 3. Depolymerization of PET by glycolysis.

One practical problem in the chemical recycling of any plastic is its insolubility. Phase transfer catalysts –  species capable of transferring from one phase to another – have been used to address the insolubility of PET12 and have permitted the direct hydrolysis of PET at operating temperatures as low as 80 °C, as in the work of Karayannidis and coworkers (Figure 4). The phases in these systems are the insoluble PET polymer (the organic phase) and the basic solution (the aqueous phase) surrounding it.13

Figure 4. Phase transfer catalyzed hydrolysis of PET (catalyst shown in blue).

Addition polymers, such as polypropylene (PP) or polyethylene (PE), cannot be depolymerized to monomer form using the above strategies as their polymerization does not involve the loss of small molecules. Until very recently, the best end-of-life purpose for the majority of plastics has been energy recovery through incineration. The work of Huang and coworkers on the chemical degradation of PE plastics is a break-through for the field of plastic recycling. While previous studies have reported that thermolysis of PE yields poorly defined mixtures of hydrocarbons, these authors have found a remarkable, highly targeted method for converting PE to a narrow distribution of fuels (3 to 30 carbons in length) using a dehydrogenative metathesis strategy (Figure 5).14 The homogeneous iridium catalysts employed were previously reported in the literature for alkane dehydrogenation (step 1) and hydrogenation (step 3), but no such polymer substrates had apparently been attempted for main-chain dehydrogenation. Similarly, the authors used a previously-established rhenium oxide/aluminium oxide catalyst for olefin metathesis (step 2).

Figure 5. The transition-metal catalyzed degradation of PE to liquid fuels reported by Huang and Guan (catalysts shown in blue).14

The chemical recycling of PET by phase transfer catalysis and of PE by dehydrogenative-metathesis have very little in common with one another on a technical level. What unites these two strategies is the desire to transform the problematic, highly abundant and inexpensive resource that is waste plastic into useful commodities. Perhaps more importantly, these two examples both take revolutionary approaches to old problems through inspiration from fundamental research and parallels found in small molecule catalysis. Rethinking the plastic problem into a challenge for catalysis, rather than solely a call for clever materials design, is critical if we wish to reduce the threats that waste plastics pose to our health and our environment.


  1. Tavazzi, L., et al., The Excellence of the Plastics Supply Chain in Relaunching Manufacturing in Italy and Europe, The European House, Ambrosetti, 2013 (as cited in Bühler‐Vidal, J. O. The Business of Polyethylene. In Handbook of Industrial Polyethylene and Technology; Spalding, M. A.; Chatterjee, A. M., Eds.; John Wiley & Sons: Hoboken, NJ, 2017; p. 1305).
  2. Mote Marine Laboratory Biodegradation Timeline; 1993. Available from: ; accessed July 10, 2018.
  3. Image sources: Image sources: (Plastic recycling symbols) ; (PP) ; (LLDPE) ; (HDPE) ; (PVC) ; (PET)
  4. Andrady, A. L. Journal of Macromolecular Science, Part C: Polymer Reviews, 1994, 34(1), 25-76.
  5. Hopewell, J.; Dvorak, R.; Kosior, E. Trans. R. Soc. B, 2009, 364, 2115–2126.
  6. Rahimi, A.; García, J. M. Nature Reviews Chemistry, 2017, 1, 0046.
  7. MacArthur, E. Science, 2017, 358 (6365), 843.
  8. García, J. M.; Robertson, M. L. Science, 2017, 358(6365), 870-872.
  9. Sardon, H.; Dove, A. P. Science, 2018, 360(6387), 380-381.
  10. The Future of Plastic. Nature Communications, 2018, 9, 2157.
  11. Venkatachalam, S.; Nayak, S. G.; Labde, J. V.; Gharal, P. R.; Rao, K.; Kelkar, A. K. Degradation and Recyclability of Poly (Ethylene Terephthalate). In Polyester; Saleh, H. E. M., Ed.; InTech: London, 2004; p. 78.
  12. Glatzer, H. J.; Doraiswamy, L. K. Eng. Sci. 2000, 55(21), 5149-5160.
  13. Kosmidis, V. A.; Achilias, D. S.; Karayannidis, G. P. Mater. Eng. 2001, 286(10), 640-647.
  14. Jia, X.; Qin, C.; Friedberger, T.; Guan, Z.; Huang, Z. Science Advances 2016, 2(6), e1501591.


Green Chemistry at CSC2017 – The 100th Canadian Chemistry Conference and Exhibition

By Kevin Szkop and Alex Waked

This year, the GCI partnered with the Chemical Institute of Canada (CIC), the organizing body of the CSC2017, to be closely involved in various aspects of Canada’s largest chemistry meeting.

In collaboration with GreenCentre Canada and CIC, the GCI organized a Professional Development Workshop as part of the CSC2017 program. This event consisted of four components:

The green chemistry crash course, led by Dr. Laura Reyes. Laura is a founding member of the GCI, and is now working in marketing & communications with GreenCentre Canada.

A case study, led by Dr. Tim Clark, Technology Leader at GreenCentre Canada. The case study gave attendees a unique opportunity to learn about some projects that GreenCentre has been developing and in collaboration with peers, learn how to find applications for new intellectual property (IP) and how to make contacts within relevant companies.

Kevin CSC blog 1

Dr. Tim Clark leading the GreenCentre Canada Industry Case Study

Career panel discussion, sponsored by Gilead, featuring members of academia and industry.

A coffee mixer for an opportunity for informal networking.


Supplementary to the Professional Development Workshop, the GCI organized a technical session, co-hosted by the Inorganic, Environmental, and Industrial sections of the conference. This new symposium, entitled “Recent Advances in Sustainable Chemistry”, brought together students, professors, industry, and government speakers to showcase a diverse and engaging collection of new trends in green and sustainable chemistry practices across all sectors of chemistry. Highlighted talks included Dr. Martyn Poliakoff from the University of Nottingham, also a CSC2017 Plenary Lecturer, Dr. David Bergbreiter from Texas A&M University, and Dr. William Tolman from the University of Minnesota.

Kevin CSC blog 2

Dr. Martyn Poliakoff teaching the audience about NbOPO4 acid catalysts found in Brazilian mines

Dr. Bergbreiter’s lecture was an engaging one. His enthusiastic approach to the use of renewable and bio-derived polymers as green solvents was captivating to both industrial and academic chemists.

Dr. Martyn Poliakoff, a plenary speaker at the conference, gave a phenomenal talk during the first day of the symposium. His charismatic style complimented perfectly the cutting-edge research ongoing in his group at the University of Nottingham. Particularly interesting was the use of flow processes in tandem with photochemistry to yield large quantities of natural products useful in the drug industries.

Dr. Tolman’s talk was of interest to essentially anyone working in an academic environment, especially for student run groups, like the GCI, with both academic interests as well as safety awareness initiatives. In the first part of the talk, synthetic and mechanistic studies of renewable polymers were discussed. The second part shifted focus to student-led efforts to enhance the safety culture in academic labs, which stood out from most of the other talks in our symposium.

One highlight was a group of graduate students at the University of Minnesota organizing a tour of Dow Chemicals to observe the work and safety codes in an industrial setting, which they used as a lesson to bring back to their own research labs. This caught the eye of most of the GCI members, which inspired us to organize a similar day trip in the future.

In further efforts to make our symposium accessible to undergraduate and graduate students, the GCI partnered with GreenCentre Canada to award five Travel Scholarships to deserving students from across Canada to provide financial aid to participate in the conference.

We thank all of our speakers, both national and international, for their participation in the program. It was a great success!


Taking Concrete Steps to CO2 Sequestration

Taking Concrete Steps to CO2 Sequestration

By Annabelle Wong, Member-at-Large for the GCI

With heightened concerns on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in recent years, scientists and engineers have come up with some innovative solutions to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions. One solution is to utilize and covert CO2 to everyday products such as fuels and plastics. Recently I learned that CO2 is now being converted into cement on an industrial scale.

Concrete is the most common construction material for buildings, roads, and bridges. Cement is one of the components of concrete and acts as a glue to hold concrete together. However, cement manufacturing is an energy-intensive process and the cement/concrete industry is one of the biggest CO2 emitters. In fact, 5% of the global GHG emission stems from cement production.1–3 To understand why so much CO2 is released, let’s first take a look at how cement is produced.

To make cement, limestone (calcium carbonate, CaCO3), silica (SiO2), clay (containing mostly Al2O3), and water are mixed and heated. This reaction produces a significant amount of CO2 and is called calcination. During calcination, at temperatures above 700 °C, limestone is decomposed to lime, or calcium oxide, and CO2 (Reaction 1). Then, lime reacts with SiO2 to form calcium silicates (C2S in simplified cement chemist notation, where C = CaO, S = SiO2) and tricalcium silicates (C3S) as the temperature ramps up to 1500 °C (Figure 1). The final product, called clinker, is then cooled and milled into a fine power. Afterwards, minerals such as gypsum (CaSO4) are added to make cement.4 A useful animation of cement making can be found here.5

CaCO3 (s) → CaO (s) + CO2↑ (g)                   (1)


Figure 1. Raw materials are heated up to 1500 degrees C to synthesize clinker. The ratios of products yielded at various temperatures are shown. [4]

CO2 generated via calcination actually only consists of 50% of the total CO2 emission from cement production, while 40% comes from fuel combustion for heating the reaction and 10% comes from electricity usage and transportation.6,7

The idea of rendering the cement process more sustainable is to capture CO2 from a cement plant’s flue gas and convert it to the starting material of cement, CaCO3, creating a carbon neutral process. Scientists and engineers have been developing different technologies to achieve this goal. For example, at Calera, a company in California, CO2 is first converted to carbonic acid. Then, Ca(OH)2, which can be found in industrial waste streams, is added to convert carbonic acid to CaCO3 and water. The overall reaction is shown in Reaction 2.8

CO2 + Ca(OH)2 → CaCO3 +H2O                     (2)

Iizuka et al.9 suggested that the Ca(OH)2 and calcium silicates can be extracted from waste concrete, such as concrete from dismantled buildings, as a source of calcium ions. Their methodology is similar to Calera’s, but the carbonic acid is used for the extraction of calcium ions from waste cement (Figure 2).9 Furthermore, Vance et al. has shown that liquid and supercritical CO2 can accelerate the formation of CaCO3 from Ca(OH)2.1


Figure 2. Recycling CO2 and concrete to make limestone, the starting material of cement. [9]

On the other hand, CarbonCure, a Canadian company, takes a slightly different approach in CO2 sequestration in the concrete industry. In their technology, CO2 is incorporated in the concrete production process, rather than the cement production process. CO2 is injected into the wet concrete mixture, where it is mixed with water to form carbonates (Reactions 1-3 in Figure 2). Then, the carbonates react with the existing Ca2+ in cement to form calcium carbonate nanoparticles, or limestone nanoparticles (Reaction 6 in Figure 2), which are well distributed in the concrete. This technique not only upcycles CO2, but also increases the compressive strength of the material due to these limestone nanoparticles.10

As mentioned above, fuel combustion and use of electricity also contribute to the CO2 emissions of cement production. In this way, other efforts to reduce CO2 emissions include recovering heat from the cooled clinker,5 utilization of alternative fuels, reduction of clinker in cement,3,11 and utilization of cement to absorb CO2.2

With innovative research, development, and commercialization of CO2 conversion technologies, I am optimistic that they will have a solid impact in the near future at the global scale. However, despite the current advances in CO2 conversion technology, a collaborative effort on both CO2 capture and utilization, along with the infrastructure to bridge these two technologies together, is essential to realize a carbon- neutral society.


(1)         Vance, K.; Falzone, G.; Pignatelli, I.; Bauchy, M.; Balonis, M.; Sant, G. 2015.

(2)         Torrice, B. M. Chemical and Engineering News. November 2016, p 8.

(3)         Crow, J. M. Chemistry World. 2008.

(4)         Maclaren, D. C.; White, M. A. J. Chem. Educ. 2003, 80 (6), 623–635.

(5)         Cement Making Process

(6)         Explore Cement

(7)         Mason, S. UCLA scientists confirm: New technique could make cement manufacturing carbon-neutral

(8)         The Process

(9)         Iizuka, A.; Fujii, M.; Yamasaki, A.; Yanagisawa, Y. Ind. Eng. Chem. Res. 2004, 43, 7880–7887.

(10)      Technology

(11)      Cement Industry Energy and CO2 Performance: Getting the Numbers Right (GNR); 2016.