The history of plastics

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Used in almost every single industry, plastic production had shaped the world on its terms. Thanks to super versatility, durability, and the ability of moulding, plastic has marked itself as an irreplaceable material. It has deeply ingrained into our day-to-day life, from our go carry bags to clocks at walls- everything is made of plastic. Enter a supermarket and observe carefully- more than produce there are plastics. From wrappers to your food scrappers, everything is literally just plastic. A million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute. And who said plastic pollution isn’t real?

And just to enlighten ourselves a little more, over the past 50 years, world plastic production has doubled and changed the way we live. But how did this lightweight high strength plastic was first introduced to humanity? Let’s take a look.

The introduction of plastic to society

Plastics are made of natural materials like cellulose, coal, and crude oil through a polymerization or polycondensation process. There are basically two forms of plastic- synthetic and biobased. Synthetic plastic is made of natural materials like crude oil, whereas, biobased plastic is made up of renewable resources such as carbohydrates or starch. The first synthetic polymers were made in 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt.

During the 19th century, products were made up of natural resources which were expensive and inaccessible for a large society. The main resource was ivory which was made by wild elephants tusk to produce products such as billiard balls. Due to the mass slaughter of elephants, in 1861, a New York-based firm offered $10,000 for anyone who could provide a substitute for ivory. Five years later, John Wesley Hyatt came up with the idea of plastic. He along with his brother Isaiah Hyatt treated cellulose (derived from cotton) with camphor and produced the first synthetic plastic- a product that could substitute ivory at a much cheaper price. Initially developed for the production of billiard balls, Hyatt with his invention soon transformed the 19th century’s market. Products that were before made by exploitation of natural resources such as wood, metal, or bone, now were easily replaced by plastic. The material wealth was becoming more widespread and accessible to the part of the society that remained deprived of products made up of natural resources.

In 1907, a chemist named Leo Baekeland experimented with phenol and formaldehyde creating a polymer named Bakelite, the world’s first fully synthetic plastic. With his invention, Leo became “The Father of Plastic Industry”. This version of plastic was versatile, inexpensive, and especially non-flammable unlike Hyatt’s cellulose and the raw materials for its production were easily available. Being a highly versatile material, Bakelite can be literally moulded in any shape wanted, providing endless possibilities for the world to produce almost anything with plastic. Soon after, several researchers started experimenting with Bakelite and cellulose to produce different types of plastics and created acrylic, polystyrene, vinyl, and many more.   

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With the advent of World War 2, the popularity of plastic went up and mass production of plastic products was pacing speed in the United States by 300%. From a soldier’s war cap to their rain-proof coats; everything was made up of plastic. This was the time when Nylon (a type of plastic derived from crude oil) was helping in creating parachutes, ropes, and armours. Even after the war ended, the surge of plastic production kept on increasing and won its bet over traditional markets. Plastic companies that worked during the war now turned their attention towards consumer products. People slept, wore, ate, and even travel on plastic. It was during this age, that plastic shaped the world entirely on its own term. 

But this buoyancy for plastic didn’t last long and people started observing the negative aspects of plastic. Though it was applauded for its accessibility and versatility it was now being criticized for the lack of ability to decompose. The growing plastic debris in the oceans served as an eye-opener for the world to finally comprehend the negative prospects of plastic. And why not? By the 20th century, everything was either one or another form of plastic. From your drinking water bottle bottles to your walking shoes, it’s all the members of the plastic family. The main contributor is plastic packaging, be it food items or clothes, everything was wrapped in plastic- as if there were no alternatives (paper).

World’s criticism for Plastic

Centuries later, the worldwide revolt against plastic is one of the most trending hot topics for the 21st century. The biggest problem with plastic is not that it isn’t biodegradable; the problem is that even with the knowledge of this aspect the mass production of plastic is showing no signs of slowing down. If the plastic doesn’t decompose, it will continue to hang around our atmosphere for thousands of years. Every year almost 400 million tonnes of plastic are produced and about 50% of it is single-use plastic!  

Additionally, there is 8 plastic gyre in 5 major oceans of the world which is an ultimatum on marine life. Have you ever wondered the amount of plastic we find once we enter supermarkets? All of our food, clothes, and daily necessities are packed in plastic wrappers. It is shocking to realize the rate of plastic production on daily basis! But why the production rate so high, because the consumer rate is high. We prefer purchasing stuff beautifully packed in plastic wrappers rather than any other materials. It is a kind of mind-set which we have adopted in order to maintain our fake elegance.

With time several governmental initiatives, as well as individual organizations, are coming up to challenge plastic pollution which might sound like a start of an environmental victory, but the reality remains far comprehensive. In reality, climate change is threatening the planet in the worst way possible, thanks to the growing plastic pollution. We guess with time progress is the only constant, just like the 19th century when ivory alternative led to the plastic invention, 21st century might need to work on a plastic alternative. If not, we may continue to siege the future generations to come. 

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