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The Story of Plastic - The beginning

I wanted to look more into the story of plastic, how it began, the pro’s, the cons and the realisation of the effects on our environment.

So we’ll start at the beginning. Its quite a surprise to learn that the first type of plastic was seen as ‘the natural worlds saviour from the destructive forces of humans’ which I guess in the beginning it was - it began as a saver of elephants and tortoises!

Plastic began from cellulose

Half of the average piece of wood is cellulose, a polymer that provides the tough walls of plant cells and gives wood its stiffness and durability, it’s these long pieces of strands that are separated by the pulping industry that give paper its strength. It was this cellulose that provided the raw material for the breakthrough in modern plastics – the material “Parkesine”, named by the British inventor Alexander Parkes. Many of these items can be found on display today at London’s Science Museum. He wasn’t a great businessman though and later went bankrupt.

The first synthetic plastic

The first synthetic plastic was created by the Hyaat brothers in 1870, after a New York firm offered £10,000 to anybody who found a substitute to Ivory. Hyaat added Camphor to the Parkesines products and discovered that the plastic could be moulded into a variety of shapes and imitate natural substances like tortoise shell and ivory, they renamed it celluloid. It was revolutionary, that man could create new materials and wasn’t constrained by the limitations of nature. They praised this celluloid as a saver of elephants and the tortoise and that it could protect the natural world from the destructive forces of human nature! Hyatt and his brother went on to patent the first plastics injection moulding machine two years later.

The beginning of plastic and fossil fuels

Plastic as we know it was invented in 1907, the first fully synthetic plastic and the big breakthrough from Belgian-born American Leo Baekeland – Bakelite – meaning it contained no molecules found in nature. The first plastic to be derived not from plants or animals, but from fossil fuels. Baekeland used an acid derived from coal tar. Bakelite was invented to meet the needs of a rapidly growing electrical world. It was a brilliant insulator, durable, heat resistant and suited for mass production. It was marketed by its owners as “the material of a thousand uses”. It opened the floodgates to synthetic plastics, polystyrene in 1929, PVC in 1930, polythene in 1933 and nylon in 1935.

It came more of age during world war II and was used to create everything from helmets, to body Armor and parachutes. Plastic was seen as inexpensive and safe, and petrochemical companies built plants to turn crude oil into plastic by the lorryload, they upped production by 300% during world war II alone. Choosing the synthetic alternative to preserve natural resources.

Over the last 50 years, plastic has saturated our world and changed the way we live. Tupperware was launched in 1948 to keep production running and the synthetic plastic amazed everyone as it replaced smashable glass and ceramics or pewter which was easily dented.  The synthetic plastics seem to last forever, and it wasn’t long before people started realising the disadvantages of this.

My next blog will cover the effects of this revolutionary material on our environment and how people become to realise the negative effects of plastic.