One Man’s Trash Can Be That Same Man’s Treasure

UNC-Chapel Hill’s Frank Leibfarth tests molecules to turn plastic waste into useful materials, diversifying our options for recycling. He focused on the largest class of plastics, polyolefins — also the most difficult to recycle. The work involved finding a molecule that’s perfectly tuned to react with a carbon-hydrogen bond that can go in and pluck off hydrogen and replace it with a chemical group that makes the plastic more useful with better properties.

“The chemistry is what makes recycling polyolefins particularly challenging, but chemists get really excited about it,” says Frank Leibfarth , associate professor in the Department of Chemistry at UNC-Chapel Hill.