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Research impact

Life in plastic, it's (not so) fantastic

This article appears in: Science
HDR student Caleb Ojo in the lab

We are currently facing a plastic pollution crisis that impacts the health of humans, wildlife, marine and terrestrial environments, and even Earth’s climate system. 

Caleb Ojo, a Higher Degree by Research student at CDU, is trying to solve one of the plastic waste problems plaguing our beautiful planet.

He’s finding a way to recycle a particular type of plastic called acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), used in common electronics like computer monitors, keyboards and central processing units.

The rise of e-waste

The rapid rise of e-waste in landfill

Our ability to recycle e-waste safely isn’t keeping up with our rate of consumption, if our discarded electronic products are recycled effectively at all.

It is expected that over 74 million tonnes of electronic waste will be dumped each year by 2030 according to the UN’s e-waste monitor, almost doubling the amount from 2014.

Because of the rapid rise in electronics production, such types of plastic waste are also rising and there is currently no sustainable and cheap way to deal with this waste.

"They usually end up in landfills or are incinerated and both methods are not suitable for the environment or human health."

Incineration was once seen to be a quick fix for the pollution crisis, as it reduced the sheer volume of waste ending up in landfill. However, burning waste does not make it disappear—it merely changes form—and incinerators release harmful emissions into the atmosphere.

“Brominated organic compounds can be very toxic when inhaled or ingested by humans or animals. The rise in cancer cases indicates an urgent need for something to be done, as these toxic compounds are carcinogenic.”

Finding a solution

Inspired by a love for chemistry and an early awareness of the waste management problems affecting both his country and the planet at large, Caleb is finding a way to recycle ABS plastics using easily accessible materials.

“Items like eggshells, oysters and cement waste contain calcium. Calcium can remove the toxic element—bromine—that makes these plastics unrecyclable.”

He is using a wide variety of analytical techniques to conduct his research.

“The primary elements I am interested in are calcium and bromine. The plan is to increase the temperature of the mixture of these two elements to form a very important salt—calcium bromide. This process is done in the absence of oxygen—a process called pyrolysis—so we can form useful products and reduce pollution and energy requirements in dealing with plastic waste.

If my findings are as fruitful as I expect, commercial plants nationwide would be developed, and much plastic currently sitting in landfills would be removed.

“This would protect wildlife and human health. It would also reduce the pollution that is produced from incineration.”

CDU is seeking Higher Degree by Research students to take part in research projects just like these. Scholarships are available. Learn more.

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