IBM just found a way to turn toxic old smartphones into medical-grade plastic

'It’s an environmental win on many fronts,' one researcher says

The technology industry's e-waste problem isn't expected to go away anytime soon, but IBM just made a discovery that could help. Researchers there have discovered a new recycling process that can turn the polycarbonates used to make smartphones and CDs into a nontoxic plastic that's safe and strong enough for medical use.

Polycarbonates are found not just in smartphones and CDs but also LED screens, Blu-ray players, eyeglass lenses, kitchen utensils, and household storage gear. Unfortunately, they're known to leach BPA as they decompose over time, and there's considerable concern about the effects of that chemical on the brain.

By adding a fluoride reactant, a base similar to baking powder and heat, IBM's researchers produced a new plastic that's even tougher than polycarbonate in terms of temperature and chemical resistance. It's safe enough for use in water purification and medical equipment, IBM says. Fiber optics is another potential application.

Meanwhile, it's also strong enough to resist the decomposition process that causes BPA leaching.

“While preventing these plastics from entering landfills, we simultaneously recycle the substance into a new type of plastic -- safe and strong enough for purifying our water and producing medical equipment,” said Jeanette Garcia, one of the IBM researchers involved in the project. “It’s an environmental win on many fronts.”

The researchers used a combination of predictive modeling and experimental lab work to discover the new one-step recycling approach, IBM said. A paper describing the work was published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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