Swansea University researchers discovered how food packaging plastics can be recycled to create new materials like wires for electricity, which can alleviate the problem of plastic waste.

Currently, conventional technology can recycle few kinds of plastics; however, researchers discovered that plastics can be reused even after being used for their original purpose. 

The findings of their study were published in the Journal For Carbon Research, where the authors focused on chemical recycling that utilizes the basic elements of black plastics to create new materials. 

Dr. Alvin Orbaek White, a Sêr Cymru II Fellow at the Energy Safety Research Institute (ESRI) at Swansea University said: "Carbon nanotubes are tiny molecules with incredible physical properties. The structure of a carbon nanotube looks a piece of chicken wire wrapped into a cylinder and when carbon is arranged like this it can conduct both heat and electricity. These two different forms of energy are each very important to control and use in the right quantities, depending on your needs."

"Nanotubes can be used to make a huge range of things, such as conductive films for touchscreen displays, flexible electronics fabrics that create energy, antennas for 5G networks while NASA has used them to prevent electric shocks on the Juno spacecraft."

The research focused on black plastics, that cannot easily be recycled but are commonly used as packaging for fruits, vegetables, and ready meals in supermarkets. Carbon was removed and nanotube molecules were constructed from the bottom up. The nanotubes were utilized to transmit electricity to a light bulb in small demonstrator model. 

"Now the research team plan to make high purity carbon electrical cables using waste plastic materials and to improve the nanotube material's electrical performance and increase the output, so they are ready for large-scale deployment in the next three years," according to Eureka Alert

Dr. Orbaek White said: "The research is significant as carbon nanotubes can be used to solve the problem of electricity cables overheating and failing, which is responsible for about 8% of electricity is lost in transmission and distribution globally.

"This may not seem like much, but it is low because electricity cables are short, which means that power stations have to be close to the location where electricity is used, otherwise the energy is lost in transmission," White said.

"Many long range cables, which are made of metals, can't operate at full capacity because they would overheat and melt. This presents a real problem for a renewable energy future using wind or solar, because the best sites are far from where people live," White added.

Carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen are the elements that make up black plastics. The amounts and arrangements of these elements contribute to the uniqueness of each plastic. The purity of plastics allows them to be decomposed into these elements and be arranged to form carbon nanotubes.