scorecardThis new type of soap made from common plastic waste could be the latest solution for our plastic problem!
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This new type of soap made from common plastic waste could be the latest solution for our plastic problem!

This new type of soap made from common plastic waste could be the latest solution for our plastic problem!
SustainabilitySustainability2 min read
Soaps and detergents have become non-negotiable essentials in every household. However, while we can't get enough of this stuff, there's another household material that we can't seem to dispose of quickly: plastic.

While a connection between the two might seem far-fetched at first, some new exciting science has helped connect the dots in a way that could go a long way for the environment. A team of researchers from Virginia Tech have devised a way to upcycle many plastic types into precursors for soap and detergent making, killing two birds with a singular stone.

To understand how this is even possible, we need to look closer at the chemical structures of both materials. Polyethylene, the most common plastic type that finds application in consumer products such as food packaging, bottles, buckets and even bulletproof vests, is shockingly similar to the fatty acids used in the manufacture of soaps.

Therefore, it was thus theoretically possible to convert the unwanted plastic into soap. And turns out, it might be easier than previously thought. However, the team would have to go down the nightmare route of plastic burning.

When the material was burned and cooled at exact points, it produced a special type of soot from the burning residue. This soot could then be saponified into the beacon of hygiene: soap. And thus, the world's first 'plastic' soap was born.

There was another bit of silver lining to this project. One reason plastics are such a nightmare to handle is that there's so many types, and we can't really process all of them the same way. Therefore, a mountain of energy goes into segregating these types at processing plants.

However, the researchers found that this soaping process could also apply to polypropylenes — another extremely common plastic used in bottles, packaging, medicals, carpets and piping, among other things. This meant that both these plastic types could be processed together, cutting out all the excess energy it might take to separate these very similar plastic types.

Now comes the upscaling of the entire process. The final plastic soap must be valuable enough to cover the extra steps. However, the relatively straightforward and simple requirements of this procedure could contribute significantly to its cost-effectiveness, and even serve to relatively minimise the impact on the environment.

"It should be realised that plastic pollution is a global challenge rather than a problem of a few mainstream countries. Compared to a sophisticated process and complex catalyst or reagent, a simple process may be more accessible to many other countries worldwide," notes Xu, lead author of the study. "I hope this can be a good start for the war fighting plastic pollution."

The findings of this study have been published in Science and can be accessed here.

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