The starting point for most plastic is crude oil, which is rich in carbon atoms linked as rings and chains. Each of the carbon atoms is connected to one or more hydrogen atoms. Collectively, these molecules are called hydrocarbons.
When the bonds between the carbon atoms or between the carbon and hydrogen atoms are broken, radicals are generated. By their nature, these radicals are exceptionally eager to bond with other molecules.
On the plus side, inventing new ways for these hydrocarbons to break and recombine has led to the dizzying array of fuels, chemicals and materials that underpin much of modern life, including a huge range of plastics with qualities like transparency, opaqueness, rigidity, squeezability, toughness, delicacy and all the other features that make plastic so endlessly useful.
Imagine if all our containers were still made of glass, pottery or metal. And how would electricity work if there were no non‐conductive plastics?
Now the downside. In conventional, ie, mechanical recycling, plastics can only be processed with other waste made of the same or very well‐defined mixtures of plastic. Using unsorted, random compositions of plastics gives unpredictable results, producing materials of no use to anyone.
That’s why plastics are sorted strictly into their six classes for recycling, and why most contaminated, end‐of‐life plastic, which makes up about 50 percent of the world’s waste plastic, is burned, sent to landfill or indeed dumped into rivers. Things would be so much easier if all types of plastic could be recycled together using a chemical route.
The questions has always been: how? For Maschmeyer, the answer is water.