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Dissolving Benchys

Finally, There’s a Better Way to Recycle PLA

Picture of Anatol Locker
by Anatol Locker
Feb 5, 2020

It’s a commonly held belief that PLA is easily biodegradable – which it is, except only under particular conditions not found in your typical landfill. So what of the myriad of Benchies? UK researchers may have a solution.

Polylactic acid is the most common 3D printing material for hobbyists for a reason. It’s easy to handle, delivers good results, and is relatively inexpensive. And, once a print has served its purpose, it can be composted, can’t it?

Unfortunately, that’s the common self-deception among makers. PLA may often carry the label of biodegradability, but the reality is this only really takes place under particular conditions – namely with heat, pressure, and time. While the base monomer is derived from fermented plant starch (corn, cassava, sugarcane or sugar beet pulp), the processed polymer PLA is still plastic, which only vanishes under these conditions.

So, wouldn’t it be better to recycle it and split it up into usable components? Sure, this can be done already in a traditional recycling way. But it’s expensive and also time-consuming. Or, it was.

Researchers at the Universities of Bath and Birmingham in the UK have found a new approach, which appears to be fast, effective and inexpensive. Using a chemical complex containing zinc (acting as a catalyst), the researchers were able to break down the polymer chains of PLA. In lab tests, they were able to completely dissolve PLA samples in just 30 minutes.

Depending on the zinc complex used the dissolved PLA can be broken down into different constituent materials that can be re-used in the chemical industry.

The work is detailed in a research paper recently published in ChemSusChem.

(Lead image source: Umwelt Campus)

And sorry, we help but to point out how important zinc oxide is for your daily life (wink wink):

License: The text of "Finally, There’s a Better Way to Recycle PLA" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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