For the first time, researchers have developed a “thermoset” plastic in a recyclable form. This group of thermosets includes plastics that are durable and stiff as well as flexible gels that can repair themselves if torn. And it all started by accident!

Dr. Jeanette Garcia, from IBM’s Almaden Research Center in San Jose, accidentally left a component out of a reaction, which resulted in an incredibly hard and stable chunk of plastic. In addition to its strength, the plastic could also be digested in acid and revert to its original components. Because it can be digested, its monomers can be reused.

“It was definitely fortuitous,” said Dr. Garcia. “The first thing I did, of course, was to hit the literature, to try and see if it’d been done before. I just assumed that it had been – it’s such a simple reaction.”

Thermosets are often mixed with carbon fiber to form composites. These composites are used regularly in the automotive industry and in aircraft. However, thermoset plastic couldn’t be recycled until now. The ability to recycle thermoset plastic could help lead to greener materials in a number of industries. When a large or expensive plastic piece is damaged or used up, it could be recycled or even repaired instead of going into the garbage. This ability to recycle these thermosets will save money and prevent waste.