Humanity had to wait until 1907 to see its first completely synthetic plastic, entirely made out of molecules not found in nature. That year, in his New York lab, scientist Leo Bakefield put a mix of formaldehyde and phenol through a condensation reaction. He called the result “bakelite”, and it was revolutionary. Its non-conductive and heat-resistant properties made it the perfect material to use in everything from radio and telephone receptors to kitchenware, firearms and even jewelry. But it was also revolutionary in another way: it proved that plastics could be produced cheaply and easily, which sparked a downpour of money into research on them.
In fact, just 21 years later, the giant american manufacturer DuPont decided to pivot the main goal of their Experimental Station in Delaware, created in 1903, towards plastics. In 1928, they hired chemist Wallace Carothers to lead it, and, over the next decades, the Station will become instrumental in the development of such ubiquitous plastics as nylon, lycra, neoprene, teflon, plexiglas or PET plastic.
Be that as it may, until the 1970s, none of the plastics produced by DuPont -or any other company, for that matter- was manufactured with the three Rs -reduce, reuse, recycle- in mind. For instance, in 1973, the DuPont scientist Nathaniel Wyeth created the modern plastic bottle out of PET plastics. It was an instant success, with beverage manufacturing giants such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Evian or Nestlé adopting the concept on a large scale. Nonetheless, the problem became obvious quite soon too: after their use, plastic bottles became non-degradable waste. And, given the unfathomable amount of bottles produced per year, that waste was quickly becoming a huge issue. So, in 1977, just four years later after its invention, a process for their recycling was invented.