The History of Plastic - The Invention and Its Future
Where on earth did plastic come from?
This is possibly the question of all questions, but to really get to the bottom of plastic, we have to start with a good ole’ definition.
Plastic is a word that originally meant “pliable and easily shaped.” I mean, it’s crazy to think that people described those traits as plastic!
Just recently, plastic has become a name for a group of materials that are polymers. The word polymer means “of many parts,” as polymers are made of long chains of molecules that can be synthetic or found in nature. Fortunately, and unfortunately, we have learned to make a synthetic version of polymers with petroleum and other fossil fuels.
So, what are synthetic polymers?
Synthetic polymers are made up of long chains of atoms, arranged in repeating units, and they are usually much longer than those found in nature. The length and patterns of these chains make polymers strong, lightweight, and flexible. In other words, it’s what makes them plastic.
These properties are actually so useful, that with this discovery, humans learned how to manipulate and use them as part of our daily lives – changing the way we interact with products for generations.
Alexander Parks was credited as the inventor of what is now recognized as the first fully synthetic plastic. His new material, which he called Parkesine, was first shown at the 1862 International Exhibition, held at South Kensington, London. The "celluloid" was then invented in 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt, who launched the "modern age of man-made plastic". He was inspired by a New York firm’s offer of $10,000 for anyone who could provide a substitute for ivory. At the time, the popularity of billiards had put a strain on the supply of natural ivory – which as we know is made from wild elephants.
Hyatt’s discovery was mindboggling because his creation involved human manufacturing that wasn’t restricted by the limits of nature. Humans could create new materials that could be of use, and this was exciting! This development helped not only people but, the environment – it was even called “the savior of the elephant and the tortoise”. In fact, the creation of simplified plastics soon became the answer needed to protect the natural world from an overuse of resources.
The use of new materials also helped free people from the social and economic constraints imposed by the scarcity of natural resources. And so, the hype around plastics was just getting started.
In 1907, Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite, the first fully synthetic plastic, meaning it contained no molecules found in nature. Bakelite was not only a good insulator; it was also durable, heat resistant, and, unlike John Hyatt’s, invention, it was better suited for mechanical mass production. It was called “the material of a thousand uses”.
Hyatt’s and Baekeland’s successes led major chemical companies to invest in the research and development of new polymers.
Plastics Continue to Grow in Use
Then came World War II. This was the primary reason for the further production of plastics in America, and the production simply continued because Americans were ready to spend money on almost any and everything made of plastic.
Since then, plastics made possible the development of computers, cell phones, and most of the lifesaving advances of modern medicine. We’ve kind of established that without plastics many possessions that we take for granted might be out of reach for everyone but the richest Americans, but the way plastics are made, and their current impact is still important to take note of.
Because of the value of plastic use, scientists have been attempting to make plastics safer, more efficient, and sustainable – helping us realize the true benefits of plastics without the harmful impact. Now, we must do our best to recycle what we can, buy what lasts, and keep our planet first – that is reimagining how we use plastic so we can continue to realize the benefits while also protecting our environment.