Before we dive into the history of plastic, it is important to first understand what the word plastic actually means. Plastic was originally defined as pliable and easily shaped. Overtime, plastic has since evolved since its founding. Now the word polymer is used interchangeably with plastic. The definition of polymer is of many parts. Polymer was not just coined to describe plastic, but actually used to describe natural materials. Polymers are made of long chains of molecules; an example of a natural occurring polymer is cellulose. Synthetic polymers are predominantly made by using carbon atoms derived from petroleum, and various fossil fuels; at times it can also be created with more naturally occurring elements like cellulose. Manmade polymers are structured far differently than natural ones found in nature, and are constructed with lengthy chains of atoms, in repeating units. With this trait, the synthetic polymer will be extremely strong, lightweight, and flexible which describes the traits that we have become so used to seeing in our day to day consumer plasticware. Since World War II, plastic has been a huge part of human life, and here we will explore the history of these synthetic creations.
The journey of plastic creation began in 1869, when the very first synthetic polymer was founded by John Wesley Hyatt. Hyatt’s motivation was spurred by a firm’s offer of $10,000 dollars to the first individual who could find a successful substitute for ivory. John treated cellulose, derived from cotton fiber, with treated camphor, plastic was then born, and John filled his immediate goal of substituting ivory. Little did he know how influential plastic would become in our daily lives. At the time, his discovery was groundbreaking, and broke the barrier that humans had become so accustomed to, that their manufacturing processes were constrained completely by nature; this was the first-time humans could create their own materials, without relying on the world’s natural resources (The History and Future of Plastics.).
Roughly slightly more than 30 years later, plastic went forward to yet another historic breakthrough, this time founded by a gentleman by the name of Leo Baekeland in 1907. Baekeland founded Bakelite, the world’s first fully synthetic plastic, which essentially, was the very first plastic that contained absolutely no raw materials occurring within the Earth for its production. Bakelite had many common traits that we find in plastics that we use today; Bakelite was: a good insulator (which is what it was founded for), durable, heat resistant, and ideally suited for mechanical mass production. With these findings, corporate interest started to grow, and countless manufacturing firms began conducting their own research to find plastics that would suite their own needs (The History and Future of Plastics.).
Plastic really boomed during the World War II era, where the world’s arguably largest war in history, created a demand for many resources, and endless industrial capability. With the overbearing strain of the war placing pressure on the utilization of natural resources, plastic had a moment to really shine. Plastic provided the means to lessen the strain, and substitute for those natural resources that were being consumed for the war effort. A large contributor to that shining moment was discovered by a man named Wallace Carothers in 1935. Carothers founded, a common term used today, Nylon. Nylon was a synthetic silk and was used in the production of, but not limited to: parachutes, ropes, body armor, and helmet liners. Plexiglass was also founded and proved to be a great alternative to glass for aircraft windows. World War II and it’s demanding pressure on world resources, pushed plastic production to increase 300% (The History and Future of Plastics.). Post war had left a consumer society that was eager to start spending after yet another great war, and depression; plastic was at the very center of that spending. Plastic had found its way into replacing the steel for cars, paper/glass packaging, and wood in furniture.
The uptick of plastic did not last. By the 1960s plastic had drawn rather concerning attention after plastic debris in the ocean had started to be witnessed. This observation came at a very bad time for the plastic industry as the American population had started to become more aware of environmental issues (The History and Future of Plastics.). Plastic found more setbacks in the 1970s and 1980s while further negative attention was drawn to waste created by it. It was here, and soon after the public started to conceptualize that plastic lasts forever in the environment. It was here when plastic recycling was founded by the plastic industry and the first plastic recycling mill was constructed in 1972 in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania (The History and Future of Plastics.). This recycling system is still flawed today as countless plastic waste is still found in landfills, and in the environment despite large efforts to curb this problem. Additionally there is an area in the Pacific Ocean that has been coined the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” and has a collection of plastic that is roughly the size of Texas, which is still increasing. Plastic is also landing further negativity due to its health concerns with additives incorporated into its creation like BPA which give polymers increased abilities like flexibility. Further research has the consumer market rather unconfident, as it depicts that plastics can leach chemicals out into our liquids, food, and bodies. It is this current down trend in consumer outlook in the industry, and uptick in plastic pollution, that has led to this concept, research, written work, and motivation to provide a solution to the problem that is plaguing the world today.
The History and Future of Plastics. (2016, December 20). Retrieved from https://www.sciencehistory.org/the-history-and-future-of-plastics