Poly(l-lactic acid) (PLLA) is a leading commercial polymer produced from biomass, showing useful properties for plastics and fiber applications; after use, it is compostable. One area for improvement is postconsumer waste PLLA chemical recycling to monomer (CRM), i.e., the formation of l-lactide (l-LA) from waste plastic. This process is currently feasible at high reaction temperatures and shows low catalytic activity accompanied, in some cases, by side reactions, including epimerization. Here, a commercial Sn(II) catalyst, applied with nonvolatile commercial alcohol, enables highly efficient CRM of PLLA to yield l-LA in excellent yield and purity (92% yield, >99% l-LA from theoretical max.). The depolymerization is performed using neat polymer films at low temperatures (160 °C) under a nitrogen flow or vacuum. The chemical recycling operates with outstanding activity, achieving turnover frequencies which are up to 3000× higher than previously excellent catalysts and applied at loadings up to 6000× lower than previously leading catalysts. The catalyst system achieves a TOF = 3000 h–1 at 0.01 mol % or 1:10,000 catalyst:PLLA loading. The depolymerization of waste PLLA plastic packaging (coffee cup lids) produces pure l-LA in excellent yield and selectivity. The new catalyst system (Sn + alcohol) can itself be recycled four times in different PLLA “batch degradations” and maintains its high catalytic productivity, activity, and selectivity.
Thom studied for his MChem at the University of Edinburgh. He then moved to the University of Bath to complete his PhD under the supervision of Professor Antoine Buchard. During his PhD, he studied the impact of stereochemistry on the properties of sugar-derived polymers. Alongside his PhD, Thom completed a short JSPS research fellowship at Nagoya University in Japan, working for Professor Masami Kamigaito. Thom is now at the University of Oxford with Professor Charlotte Williams developing catalysts for the depolymerization of polycarbonates and polyesters.