Worldwide, more than 14 million metric tons of polystyrene are produced annually. But the material is tough to dispose of because it takes thousands of years to decompose.
A solution could be near in the form of a new technology that combines chemistry and microbiology to help transform polystyrene into a useful biodegradable plastic. Dr. Kevin O'Connor, a lecturer in the University College Dublin School of Biomolecular and Biomedical Science and his research team have joined with Professor Walter Kaminsky of the University of Hamburg to work on a solution to the global growth of the styrofoam mountain.
Professor Kaminsky uses a technique called Pyrolysis that uses heat in a vacuum to break down the plastic into a crude pyrolysis oil, composed of 83% styrene. Dr. O'Connor feeds this oil to a bacterium (pseudomonas putida CA-3). These tiny microbes then transform it into a biodegradable heat-resistant plastic that can be used in a variety of forms ranging from plastic bottles to surgical parts.
As always with any recycling project there are concerns over energy-cost and by-products. Professor Kamisky believes that redistilling the crude pyrolysis oil could leave a cleaner styrene oil that could be consumed by the bacteria. The remaining crud could be burned, producing energy for the process.This web-only article appeared in the Packaging e-mail newsletter. If you enjoyed this article and would like to read similar articles sign up today for our free e-mail newsletters!