Scientists Turn Plastic Cutlery into Home Insulation Foam

Everybody has that one drawer in the kitchen. You know, the one with all of the leftover plastic cutlery (and sauce packets) from the zillion Postmates orders that have gleefully pinged your home. But while all those faux utensils usually just languish until they’re in the trash, New Scientist reports a team of researchers in New Zealand thinks it has a better idea. Turn them into insulation foam for homes.

To see if the idea works, Heon Park at the University of Canterbury and his colleagues developed a method to turn polylactic acid (or PLA) into the foamy construction material. With the ultimate aim of the experiment set on developing a way to deal with biodegradable plastics; ones that, unfortunately, most often end up in landfills. And, of course, our oceans.

A microscopic look at insulation foam made from plastic cutlery and carbon dioxide.

Heon Park, et al. 

To turn the cutlery into foam, Park and his team placed some of the plastic stuffs into a chamber filled with carbon dioxide. The researchers then continually increased the pressure inside the chamber, forcing the carbon dioxide to dissolve into the plastic. They then suddenly depressurized the chamber, causing the carbon dioxide to expand. This, in turn, caused the plastic itself to expand suddenly into a foam.

“Tweaking temperature and pressure, there is a window where we can make good foams,” Park said in a press release. “It’s not that every temperature or every pressure works. [But we] found what temperature or what pressure is the best to make those nonfoamable plastics into foams,” he added.

A bunch of plastic forks and spoons laid out against a pink background.

Marco Verch

Park and his team believe that making biodegradable plastics like PLA cutlery recyclable would be a boon for the environment. And could even help tackle global pollution, as it could curb the amount of plastics in industrial composting. Although first the researchers will need to prove this method is feasible in the real world. Which means they’ll have to tackle this problem one bite at a time.

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