How to recycle ‘nonrecyclable’ plastics

atom: The basic unit of a chemical element. Atoms are made up of a dense nucleus that contains positively charged protons and uncharged neutrons. The nucleus is orbited by a cloud of negatively charged electrons.

atomic: Having to do with atoms, the smallest possible unit that makes up a chemical element.

bond: (in chemistry) A semi-permanent attachment between atoms — or groups of atoms — in a molecule. It’s formed by an attractive force between the participating atoms. Once bonded, the atoms will work as a unit. To separate the component atoms, energy must be supplied to the molecule as heat or some other type of radiation.

chemical: A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (bond) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made when two hydrogen atoms bond to one oxygen atom. Its chemical formula is H2O. Chemical also can be an adjective to describe properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.

chemical bonds: Attractive forces between atoms that are strong enough to make the linked elements function as a single unit. Some of the attractive forces are weak, some are very strong. All bonds appear to link atoms through a sharing of — or an attempt to share — electrons.

chemical engineer: A researcher who uses chemistry to solve problems related to the production of food, fuel, medicines and many other products.

component: Something that is part of something else (such as pieces that go on an electronic circuit board or ingredients that go into a cookie recipe).

compound: (often used as a synonym for chemical) A compound is a substance formed when two or more chemical elements unite (bond) in fixed proportions. For example, water is a compound made of two hydrogen atoms bonded to one oxygen atom. Its chemical symbol is H2O.

criteria: (sing. criterion) The standards, rules, traits or other things used to make a judgment or determination about something.

degrade: To break down into smaller, simpler materials — as when wood rots or as a flag that’s left outdoors in the weather will fray, fade and fall apart. (in chemistry) To break down a compound into smaller components.

dynamic: An adjective that signifies something is active, changing or moving. (noun) The change or range of variability seen or measured within something.

engineer: A person who uses science to solve problems. As a verb, to engineer means to design a device, material or process that will solve some problem or unmet need. (v.) To perform these tasks, or the name for a person who performs such tasks.

environment: The sum of all of the things that exist around some organism or the process and the condition those things create. Environment may refer to the weather and ecosystem in which some animal lives, or, perhaps, the temperature and humidity (or even the placement of things in the vicinity of an item of interest).

force: Some outside influence that can change the motion of a body, hold bodies close to one another, or produce motion or stress in a stationary body.

glass: A hard, brittle substance made from silica, a mineral found in sand. Glass usually is transparent and fairly inert (chemically nonreactive). Aquatic organisms called diatoms build their shells of it.

insulator: A substance or device that does not readily conduct electricity.

landfill: A site where trash is dumped and then covered with dirt to reduce smells. If they are not lined with impermeable materials, rains washing through these waste sites can leach out toxic materials and carry them downstream or into groundwater. Because trash in these facilities is covered by dirt, the wastes do not get ready access to sunlight and microbes to aid in their breakdown. As a result, even newspaper sent to a landfill may resist breakdown for many decades.

link: A connection between two people or things.

liquid: A material that flows freely but keeps a constant volume, like water or oil.

macro: (antonym: micro) An adjective that means on a big or broad scale. (in computing) Computer code to execute a single instruction, which in turn directs the computer to use some preset instructions to perform a particular, desired task.

mechanical: Having to do with the devices that move, including tools, engines and other machines (even, potentially, living machines); or something caused by the physical movement of another thing.

metal: Something that conducts electricity well, tends to be shiny (reflective) and malleable (meaning it can be reshaped with heat and not too much force or pressure). 

microplastic: A small piece of plastic, 5 millimeters (0.2 inch) or smaller in size. Microplastics may have been produced at that small size, or their size may be the result of the breakdown of water bottles, plastic bags or other things that started out larger.

molecule: An electrically neutral group of atoms that represents the smallest possible amount of a chemical compound. Molecules can be made of single types of atoms or of different types. For example, the oxygen in the air is made of two oxygen atoms (O2), but water is made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom (H2O).

particle: A minute amount of something.

plastic: Any of a series of materials that are easily deformable; or synthetic materials that have been made from polymers (long strings of some building-block molecule) that tend to be lightweight, inexpensive and resistant to degradation.

pollutant: A substance that taints something — such as the air, water, our bodies or products. Some pollutants are chemicals, such as pesticides. Others may be radiation, including excess heat or light. Even weeds and other invasive species can be considered a type of biological pollution.

polymer: A substance made from long chains of repeating groups of atoms. Manufactured polymers include nylon, polyvinyl chloride (better known as PVC) and many types of plastics. Natural polymers include rubber, silk and cellulose (found in plants and used to make paper, for example).

radical: A molecule having one or more unpaired outer electrons. Radicals readily take part in chemical reactions. The body is capable of making radicals as one means to kill cells, and thereby rid itself of damaged cells or infectious microbes.

recycle: To find new uses for something — or parts of something — that might otherwise be discarded, or treated as waste.

solid: Firm and stable in shape; not liquid or gaseous.

vitrimer: A class of polymers first reported in 2011 that combine the properties of both glass and plastics.

waste: Any materials that are left over from biological or other systems that have no value, so they can be disposed of as trash or recycled for some new use.

wind turbine: A wind-powered device — similar to the type used to mill grain (windmills) long ago — used to generate electricity.

zinc: A metallic element that in its pure form is ductile (easily deformed) and that is an essential micronutrient in plants and animals.

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