Plastics are ubiquitous and underpin our modern economy. Yet today, more than 40 years after the launch of the universal recycling symbol, just 14% of plastic is collected for recycling globally, and recycled plastic products are still a niche. With oceans forecast to have more plastic than fish by 2050, and £100 billion worth of plastic packaging alone thrown away each year, the current model is unsustainable.
Why then are plastic left to persist and pollute? At its core, plastic recycling has one key issue: the separation of polymers. Whereas metals are distinct, all commodity plastics have very similar densities, electromagnetic properties, and melting temperatures. This makes extracting single polymers almost impossible, as even a small heterogeneity in the mix results in phase separation of different polymers and leads to brittle and inconsistent material. While recyclers rush to improve separation, this is slow and energy intensive work, with both degradation of the material and the high cost making the virgin material preferable to industry.
Rather than focus on separation and purification, or the search for new biodegrading polymers, we will change the status-quo with a radical new chemistry, producing “Plastics 2.0”: a universal high-grade solid plastic material, obtained directly from unsorted, mixed plastic waste. Our feedstock will be plentiful, and our proof-of-concept work has already shown superior strength and ductility, even when compared to pure virgin polymers. We hope, through this research, to finally achieve a truly circular economy in plastics.