CHAPEL HILL — Recycling day for those in the Chapel Hill 27516 zip code is typically on Wednesday. Residents from homes across the western part of the town roll their bins to the curb by 7 a.m. to ensure their recyclables are collected in the morning.

But few know where their plastics and other recyclables go after they leave the curb. That’s where Premirr Plastics comes in.

Chapel Hill-based startup Premirr Plastics is working to reform the way plastics are recycled by using a new technology that involves chemically recycling PET plastics.

Polyethylene terephthalate, or PET for short, was developed in the 1940s. It is one of the most commonly used plastics and is what most plastic water bottles are made of.

“Since PET has been invented, there has been 17 trillion pounds of PET manufactured in the world,” said Premirr Plastics co-founder and Chief Operating Officer Chris Luft.

“I think there’s been enough virgin PET manufactured that we could stop using fossil fuels to make PET,” he said. With the adoption of the company’s technology, existing plastic could continually be recycled, eliminating the need for producing more.

The recycling process

The recycling process is complicated, yet riddled with problems.

As seen in this video, once plastics are taken from the curb, they are brought to a recycling plant. Following arrival at the plant they are sorted by type of plastic and chemically cleaned.

After the cleaning, the plastic is melted and turned into pellets. This is where the problem lies.

Through the chemical cleaning the plastic goes through, the polymers are harmed and can no longer be made back into water bottles. These pellets that are created can be used to make other plastic products, primarily fabric, but cannot become a water bottle again.

The event in which water bottle plastic becomes a carpet or article of clothing is called downgrading. Once the fabric has gone through its lifespan and is ready to be recycled, it is again chemically treated and ground up where it reaches the lowest grade possible and turns into plastic strapping. When the plastic strapping has reached the end of its use, it can no longer be recycled and becomes trash in a landfill.

Premirr technology

With the current recycling process, items can only be reused only three times before becoming trash.

Premirr Plastics has developed a technology that can change that.

Matthew Parrott, founder, inventor and chief scientific officer of the company, figured out a way to chemically recycle PET by breaking it down to its original material.

“The beautiful thing about PET is that the polymer is actually made to be broken down to the starting material, or the monomer,” Luft said. “We never harm the physical or chemical properties of PET by putting it through the process.”

After the plastic is broken down into monomers, a heat catalyst is used to link the monomers together. After the reaction goes long enough, water bottles can be recreated.

With this technology, a water bottle could be recycled back into a water bottle endless amounts of times.

In addition, petroleum is used to make the monomers that create PET. With this technology, fossil fuels would no longer need to be used to make plastic.

And with plastic taking about 500 years to disintegrate, there’s plenty to be recycled in the world.

“Not only can we take a water bottle and turn it back into a water bottle over and over again, but we can take anything that contains PET, so we can take carpet, clothing, we can take the strapping, put it through our process and the monomer that we manufacture can be repolymerized and turned back into a water bottle,” Luft said.

The start of a company

Parrott is a polymer chemist. After working together at UNC-Chapel Hill, he and Luft, along with Mark McCreery, started Premirr Plastics in 2015.

“We could be changing the way the world handles plastic,” Luft said.

The PET plastic industry is worth about $30 billion per year alone, making it a large industry to disrupt.

“There’s a multitude of ways we can use the technology,” Parrott said. “Right now that’s the stage we’re at, we’re trying to figure out a scalable chemistry and the business plan is sort of just coming to us.”

KickStart Venture Services, a department within the UNC-Chapel Hill Office of Technology Commercialization, offers supports for faculty startup formation, according to its website.

The program was started about 10 years ago in order to help faculty create companies based on the research they were doing on campus.

“We’re not in the business of developing products here at the university; we’re coming up with knowledge that could be used in a product,” said director of the program, Don Rose.

The KickStart Award Program helps early-stage companies meet commercial milestones either on the technical side or on the business side. Awards are in the $25,000 to $50,000 range.

Premirr Plastics applied for and received one of these awards.

“The award was instrumental not only in getting started but in proving the concept that we could do this,” said Parrott.

Both former UNC-Chapel Hill professors, Parrott and Luft have left teaching to focus on Premirr Plastics full=time.

This story is from the North Carolina Business News Wire, a service of the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Media and Journalism