The Great Step Backwards: Polymer to Monomer

By Hyungjun Cho, member-at-large for the GCI

There is a movement to develop a new type of product life system called ‘the circular economy’ [3]. Part of this movement aims to manufacture products from recycled or raw materials, and after its useful lifetime, re-introduce the product (now considered waste) as recycled material. The motivation for the introduction of the circular economy is to minimize the need for virgin raw material, especially when it originates from non-renewable resources. This effort is being spearheaded by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation with major industry partners like Google, Unilever, Solvay, and Philips, among others [3]. A critical component to the function of the circular economy is developing the capability to turn waste into a desirable product.

There are several methods of recycling all the different types of materials we use in every day life. This blog will discuss a niche in the ‘plastic to monomer’ field. Evidently, in April of 2019, IUPAC named ‘plastic to monomer’ as part of the 10 chemical innovations that could have high impact in society [6]. Before discussing ‘plastic to monomer’, I must clarify the term ‘plastic’. Generally, plastic is made up of many polymer chains that are physically entangled with one another. A macroscopic analogy is when many electrical wires (think of Christmas tree lights) become entangled: the wires are stuck to each other and the rigidity of the ball of wire is greater than the rigidity of a single wire.

Much like the type of wire influences the tangled ball it forms, the chemical structure of the polymer influences the material properties of the plastic. Examples of properties of plastics include rigidity, elasticity, malleability, gas permeability, friction to skin, transparency, and many others. The polymers that are used for commercial plastic products have been studied and developed for decades to be able perform a specific function. For example, polyvinyl chloride and polystyrene were initially discovered in the 1800s [2,8]. Thus, it would be ideal if the currently used polymers can be de-polymerized back into monomers for recycling purposes. This would be a major move by the plastics industry to become environmentally friendly.

The conventional method to turn polymers into monomer is thermal decomposition. Samples of polymer can be heated to high temperature (typically 220-500 °C) to break some of the bonds that hold the monomers together [10]. When this occurs, radicals can form at the site of the broken bond, which can lead to de-polymerization [10]. The required temperature and how much monomer is formed is dependent on the chemical structure of the monomers that are formed. Thermal decomposition to recover monomer is suitable only for a few types of polymers, such as poly(α-methylstyrene), which has ceiling temperature of 66 °C to propagate depolymerization; the monomer recovery after thermal decomposition of poly(α-methylstyrene) is excellent at 95% [11]. However, for polymers like polyethylene (PE, the most produced polymer) and polypropylene (PP, 2nd most produced polymer), the monomer recovery yield is poor (0.025-2%) [11]. In some cases such as polyvinylchloride (PVC, 3rd most produced polymer), thermal decomposition is even more problematic because PVC will release harmful hydrochloric acid and vinylenes upon heating [11]. Thus, the monomer recovery is poor (1 %) and the process is highly corrosive.

Therefore, one of the key challenges to address for ‘polymer to monomer’ is to perform de-polymerization at a low temperature. There are 4 recent publications that explore this challenge [5,7,9,12]. In general, the authors synthesized polymers using reversible-deactivation radical polymerization (RDRP) techniques and explored the de-polymerization reactions they encountered. Below is a brief highlight from the publications from the Haddleton group [9] and the Gramlich group [5].


Scheme 1: De-polymerization of RAFT polymers with trithioester end-group [5]. Reproduced from ref. [5] with permission from The Royal Society of Chemistry.

Flanders et al. polymerized methacrylate monomers, including methylmethacrylate (MMA), using reversible addition-fragmentation chain-transfer (RAFT) polymerization with a trithioester chain-transfer agent (CTA) [5]. This type of polymerization places trithioester end-group at end of the polymer chain (Scheme 1). Typically, this end-group is used to re-start the polymerization at the trithioester end of the polymer. However, as we will see, it may have another function. The authors isolated the polymer, then re-dissolved the polymer in 1,4-dioxane at 70 °C (Scheme 1). This caused monomers to be released from the polymer chains at a temperature much less than the ceiling temperature of MMA, which is 227 °C [13]. Analysis of the polymer after partial de-polymerization demonstrated that the trithioester end-group was still attached to the polymer and the size dispersity (range of polymer ‘molecular weight’) was low, which suggested that the de-polymerization was moderated by the trithioester end-group. The authors observed 10-35% de-polymerization after heating at 70 °C for 12-60 hrs.


Scheme 2: ATRP of NIPAM in carbonated water, followed by de-polymerization [9]. Reproduced from ref. [9] with permission from The Royal Society of Chemistry.

Lloyd et al. used an alkylbromide initiator, Cu-based catalyst system to polymerize N-isopropylacrylamide (NIPAM) in Highland Spring carbonated water at 0 °C (Scheme 2) [9]. This type of polymerization places a halide at the end of the polymer chain. The authors monitored the monomer conversion into polymer using 1H-NMR spectroscopy. They measured that ca. 99% of the monomer was converted into polymer chains within 10 min. Unexpectedly, in the next 50 min. the authors observed 50% de-polymerization. The authors attempted to optimize de-polymerization conditions by changing the pH, using dry ice in HPLC grade water instead of Highland Spring carbonated water, etc. which led to 34-71% de-polymerization after 0.5-24 hrs. Years later, the same group used a very similar polymerization condition to polymerize NIPAM [1]. This time, non-carbonated water was used as the solvent and they did not report any de-polymerization.

The reports on RDRP followed by de-polymerization highlighted here are not yet ready to make an impact to ‘plastic to monomer’. The authors admit that the mechanism of de-polymerization is unknown. However, these seem to be the first set of reports on de-polymerization occurring at low temperatures. Perhaps these publications could be the birth of the reversible-deactivation radical de-polymerization (RDRDe-P) field. This is especially intriguing because RDRP have already been studied for decades in academia and are being adopted by the polymer industry [4]. Companies like BASF, Solvay, DuPont, L’Oréal, Unilever, 3 M, Arkema, PPG Industries, etc. already claimed patents for technology and products based on RDRP [4]. Somewhat ironically, RDRP was also part of the IUPAC’s 10 chemical innovations for impact on society but not for its potential to recycle polymer [6].

The polymers of the future may not be made from monomers abundantly used today, but the polymers of the future may be degradable through a low energy process.


  1.  Alsubaie, F.; Liarou, E.; Nikolaou, V.; Wilson, P.; Haddleton, D. M. Thermoresponsive Viscosity of Polyacrylamide Block Copolymers Synthesised via Aqueous Cu-RDRP. European Polymer Journal 2019, 114, 326–331.
  2. Baumann, E. Ueber Einige Vinylverbindungen. Justus Liebigs Annalen der Chemie 1872, 163 (3), 308–322.
  3. Circular Economy – UK, USA, Europe, Asia & South America – The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (accessed Jan 5, 2020).
  4. Destarac, M. Industrial Development of Reversible-Deactivation Radical Polymerization: Is the Induction Period Over? Chem. 2018, 9 (40), 4947–4967.
  5. Flanders, M. J.; Gramlich, W. M. Reversible-Addition Fragmentation Chain Transfer (RAFT) Mediated Depolymerization of Brush Polymers. Chem. 2018, 9 (17), 2328–2335.
  6. Gomollón-Bel, F. Ten Chemical Innovations That Will Change Our World: IUPAC Identifies Emerging Technologies in Chemistry with Potential to Make Our Planet More Sustainable. Chemistry International 2019, 41 (2), 12–17.
  7. Li, L.; Shu, X.; Zhu, J. Low Temperature Depolymerization from a Copper-Based Aqueous Vinyl Polymerization System. Polymer 2012, 53 (22), 5010–5015.
  8. Liebig, J. Justus Liebig’s Annalen Der Chemie. Annalen der Chemie 1832, 1874-1978.
  9. Lloyd, D. J.; Nikolaou, V.; Collins, J.; Waldron, C.; Anastasaki, A.; Bassett, S. P.; Howdle, S. M.; Blanazs, A.; Wilson, P.; Kempe, K.; et al. Controlled Aqueous Polymerization of Acrylamides and Acrylates and “in Situ” Depolymerization in the Presence of Dissolved CO2. Commun. 2016, 52 (39), 6533–6536.
  10. Microwave-Assisted Polymer Synthesis. Springer eBooks 2016
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  12. Sano, Y.; Konishi, T.; Sawamoto, M.; Ouchi, M. Controlled Radical Depolymerization of Chlorine-Capped PMMA via Reversible Activation of the Terminal Group by Ruthenium Catalyst. European Polymer Journal 2019, 120, 109181.
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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.