The History of Plastic

Plastic is one of those materials that is so common and abundant that it is easy to forget how much it has revolutionized the industrial world as well as the every day ordinary things that go on in the lives of the average person.  Before plastics were discovered, only natural rubbers from plant sources existed.  Rubber comes from the sap of rubber trees which only grow in tropical areas of the world.  Other materials that were used before hard plastic materials were discovered include ivory and other animal based materials.  Ivory was used to make billiards balls, handles for guns, and shaving blades but it was only obtained through a very high price and with the death of hundreds of elephants.  The demand for materials to make these products was beginning to grow substantially and the natural sources (rubber trees and animals) could not sustain the demand.  Something that could be manufactured to replace these natural resources was the only answer to this problem.

In the 1860s, a man named Alexander Parkes created the first plastic.  This material was derived from organic materials and could be heated and shaped and would retain its shape after it cooled.  He named his product Parkesine and it debuted at the Great National Exhibition in London in 1862.  Unfortunately, Parkesine did not become a mainstream product as it became costly to produce due to the expensive raw materials needed to produce it. 

Celluloid was invented in 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt as a replacement for expensive ivory used to produce billiards balls.  Celluloid became the first thermoplastic as it can be heated and treated with pressure to shape.  Like Parkesine, celluloid is derived from organic materials but is manufactured in a laboratory.

The very first synthetic plastic was called Bakelite and was invented by a New York chemist named Leo Baekeland in 1907.  Bakelite was the first plastic that started out as a liquid resin that would mold to the shape of the container that it was poured into when it cooled.  It would then keep its form in all types of treatment and is still used today for a number of applications as it does not crack, become brittle, fade, crease, is heat-proof, shatter-proof, holds up in damp conditions, and does not discolor. 

The early half of the twentieth century saw a huge rise in the invention and use of plastics.  It was during this time that rayon, cellophane and nylon made their debut.  Notable companies that capitalized on this huge industry include DuPont and Dow Chemical which are now synonymous which such plastic products named Teflon(R) and SaranTM. 

In 1933, polyethylene was invented by accident by two chemists at the Imperial Chemical Industries Research Laboratory.  This material was first used heavily in World War Two as a coating for underwater cable and as insulating material.  After the war, it was discovered how beneficial this product could be in the every day world of consumers.  Products such as pop bottles, milk jugs, and plastic bags are just a few of the many items that have been made with this product that are still made to this day. 

Today, plastics are everywhere.  The plastic industry has opened the door to a world of new possibilities for industries that can utilize these amazingly indestructible materials in ways that were never thought possible 100 years ago.  Unfortunately, this has also come at a price.  Because plastics, most notably the synthetic types, do not degrade like organic materials do, they are outlasting all other products and are filling up the landfills, oceans, and harming the existing flora and fauna with their seemingly infinite existence.  Because of this, new methods of plastic manufacturing to make plastic easier to recycle are being invented and utilized.