The US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Institute for Cooperative Upcycling of Plastics (iCOUP) scientists claim to have created a new approach to recycling high-density polyethylene (HDPE).

iCOUP scientists from DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) and Cornell University used the method to convert HDPE plastic into a new material.

ANL said the new material can be recycled multiple times without decreasing in quality.

It is also potentially biodegradable and claimed to offer similar mechanical and thermal properties as single-use plastic.

As part of the study, the Argonne team carried out catalysis on used HDPE products, including water jugs and packaging.

Scientists found that the longer the HDPE was left with the catalyst, the more polymer chains were activated.

A team of scientists from Cornell then took these activated polymer chains and exposed them to another catalyst.

ANL said that at this stage, the catalyst breaks up the chains and further changes the ends to allow reassembly.

Cornell team member Geoffrey Coates said: “We are using waste plastic as our source instead of fossil fuels.

“Instead of drilling for oil and polluting the environment, we’re using stuff that would otherwise be incinerated or left in a landfill.”

When repolymerised by the Cornell team, the catalysed material was more brittle than the original HDPE.

The catalysts were then fine-tuned to control the amount of branching when the material is repolymerised.

This method could reduce the carbon emission and pollution associated with HDPE.

Argonne scientist Massimiliano Delferro said: “Plastics are going to be with us forever.

“They provide functionality that no other material can provide. We need to find ways to reduce the harmful effects of plastic use by improving recyclability.”

The project was supported as part of iCOUP, an Energy Frontier Research Centre funded by the DOE Office of Science.

Argonne’s Basic Energy Sciences and Ames Laboratory also helped fund the research.