Plastic waste makes up over 20,700 tonnes of Australia's landfills each year, the main culprit being polyethylene. It's the chemical name for a long string of hydrocarbons used to make plastic bags, plastic bottles, foam cups, electrical circuit boards, garden hoses, toys, water pipes, developed photographs, and so much more.
But imagine if we could efficiently convert all that waste into something useful, like fuel.
That's exactly what a team of scientists at the Chinese Academy of Science did; they have found a way to break polyethylene down into ingredients for diesel fuel. Their findings were recently published in Science Advances.
Of course, the notion of converting waste into fuel is not a new one. There are several recyclable fuel sources that use non-biodegradable waste for fuel, such as simply burning plastic waste, or biogas harvesting, where bacteria eat the waste and release a gas that can then be used for fuel.
However, these processes either take too long, or require too much energy for the conversion process to take place, often rendering them highly inefficient.
To get around that, the scientists turned to catalysts (a substance that encourages a chemical reaction between compounds) that are used to build polymers - like polyethylene - and used them to break the polymers down.
The process works by chopping up the long rope-like polymer into bite-size chunks until they become small enough to resemble other hydrocarbons, like the ones found in diesel.
Of course, this isn't a completely clean and eco-friendly solution the way renewables are, but it could help with the massive problem of our beloved plastic ending up in landfills, polluting oceans, and killing wildlife.