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IBM research publishes an annual five year look at key trends it sees around the corner. There are many of them, but this year its report focused on related to innovations in the food supply chain – “from seed to shelf”. At a recent conference, IBM researchers made presentations about a variety of food-oriented initiatives including the future of farming, streamlining the transport and distribution of crops, improving food safety, reducing food waste, and ridding the sea of plastic waste.

Jeanette Garcia, a Master Inventor at IBM Research, discussed the need to improve the recycling of plastics. She said, “In the U.S., less than 10% of plastic waste is recycled.” “Plastics are everywhere, and it’s becoming an environmental disaster.”

Garcia noted that half of all plastic products become trash within a year. She cited a study which predicted by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Currently, more than 272 million metric tons of plastic are produced each year around the world. Twenty-five percent of the plastic contains PET (polyethylene terephthalate), a type of plastic commonly used in food packaging.

IBM researchers have created a catalytic chemical process called VolCat. This new technology can turn PET into a renewable resource. VolCat uses a combination of chemicals, heat, and pressure to reduce the amount of plastic, and ultimately the amount of waste. This new research is capable of breathing new life into old plastic. Over the next five years, Garcia predicted the new research could completely transform the way plastic is manufactured and, more importantly, how plastic is discarded.