USC researchers devise method aimed at recycling plastic trash into pharmaceuticals

Eric Resendiz Image
Wednesday, January 4, 2023
USC researchers method aims to turn plastic trash into pharmaceuticals
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A new process developed by USC researchers has shown promise as a method of turning recycled plastic trash into pharmaceutical products.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- A new process developed by USC researchers has shown promise as a method of turning recycled plastic trash into pharmaceutical products.

Eighty percent of marine pollution comes from plastic waste, according to UNESCO. And are nearly 80,000 tons of discarded plastic in what's known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, located between California and Hawaii. It is three times the size of France.

"There is an obvious problem, the garbage patch is huge," said Travis Williams, professor of chemistry at USC. "To me, that is a terrible waste of our petroleum resources. And frankly, I want it back."

So a team of USC researchers decided to take some of the trash that has washed up on Catalina Island and turn it into pharmaceuticals.

The researchers formulated a method to chemically recycle polyethylene plastic, which is commonly found in products like plastic bags. Mother nature helps pre-treat the debris by breaking it down in the ocean, then chemists start their portion of the work.

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"I chop it up in a terribly disordered and not very specific way and create this sludgy stuff that I like to call 'fungus food,'" Williams said.

That's when researchers take the black gunk and use a fungus that is often used in drug discoveries -- and turn it all into matter that's got real value.

"We are going to take the substrates from the chemistry lab, feed it to our fungi and be able to produce molecules that are then used for either anti-cancer, antibiotics and cure human diseases," said Clay Wang, a pharmacy professor at USC.

Researchers say this method of chemically recycling trash can be more efficient than other methods normally used in the pharmaceutical industry. Now, they want to figure out how to take it to the next level.

"There is a lot of plastic in the world," Williams said. "We've got to look like the manufacturing process looks like. How do we get this from laboratory to large-scale fermentation?"

The ultimate goal for the research team is to go beyond chemically recycling polyethylene plastics for pharmaceutical use. They want to apply this method to a mixture of different plastics and products.

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