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Researchers unveil method to detoxify hazardous substances using everyday plastic grocery bags: 'It's a game-changer'

"We're not just developing safer reactions; we're finding a new purpose for waste plastics."

"We're not just developing safer reactions; we're finding a new purpose for waste plastics."

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A new process developed by researchers could solve two pollution problems at once. The method uses plastic bags to neutralize toxic and sometimes explosive chemicals.

Interesting Engineering reported on the development, writing that "it's a game-changer." Plastic bags, like the ones from grocery stores, are a problem. They're difficult to recycle, but if simply thrown away or left in the environment, they create microplastics and harm animals that eat them or get stuck in them. Some areas have started to ban them in stores.

However, cut them into small pieces, put them in a ball mill, and add toxic chemicals, and you can make those chemicals much less harmful.

A ball mill has a steel jar that contains steel balls, Interesting Engineering explains. The machine shakes the jar so that the balls ping around the inside, repeatedly hitting the pieces of plastic bags.

The energy from those forceful strikes starts a chemical reaction between the bags and the toxic chemicals added to the jars. The plastic removes halogen atoms — a group of six volatile chemicals including fluorine, chlorine, and iodine — and replaces them with much less harmful hydrogen, as Interesting Engineering explains.

A team from the Institute for Chemical Reaction Design and Discovery at Hokkaido University made this advancement, the news outlet reports. They tested the process on a highly volatile and toxic flame retardant commonly used in industrial applications, according to a university report.

Associate Professor Koji Kubota, lead researcher on the project, called the use of plastic bags as chemical reagents "a completely new perspective."

"We're not just developing safer reactions; we're finding a new purpose for waste plastics — a serious social problem," he said, per Interesting Engineering.

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If applied on a wide scale, this could help make our entire environment safer while also giving us a better use for a plastic problem that has grown to an unbelievable scale in recent decades.

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