Researchers at Virginia Tech have found a way to upcycle plastic into soap.

We can break the polyethylene chains into small segments, said Guoliang (Greg) Liu, an associate professor of chemistry at Virginia Tech. They do this by using heat.

These small segments become high-value chemicals or surfactants which can be used to make things like soap.

Polyethylene is one of the most common plastics used today. The chemical structure of it is similar to the fatty acid used as a chemical in soap. Both are made of long carbon chains.

More than 60 million plastic water bottles go into landfills and incinerators every day, according to the Container Recycling Institute.

What we have done so far is a proof of concept, Liu said. When we designed the process we designed it in a way that we can scale it up.

Their work was published in the journal Science earlier this month.

SEE MORE: Microwaving plastic containers releases billions of nanoplastics

Around 120 grams to 130 grams of plastic can make 100 grams of soap, Liu said.

In terms of an environmental greenhouse gas reduction, this is a great approach, Liu said.

So what about microplastics? These have been found in our food, water, air, you name it. Scientists and health experts have been looking at how microplastics are linked to a number of health problems as well. 

One of the main concerns is PFAS, a forever chemical found in many items, including plastics.

If you look at the process, any microplastics cannot survive and they cannot get onto the next step of the reaction. So all the microplastics are gone, given the reaction process, Liu said.

Researchers say there is still more work to be done, but the process is economically viable.

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