It has been around for a relatively short space of time but in less than 200 years it has become our indispensable disposable. Now, with the realisation that it is having a hugely detrimental impact on our environment, are its days numbered? This month we look at the history of plastic.
Put simply, plastics are polymer chains which can be carbon or silicon-based and moulded into any shape.
Bakelite is usually thought of as our first ever commercial plastic. However, before Bakelite, there were other types of plastic derived from natural and organic sources.
Rubber, a plant-based material, was being used as early as the 1820s. Commonly used for rubber bands, shoe soles and tyres, rubber was manufactured from a substance called latex, which is the thick milky sap that is produced by many plants but primarily the rubber tree.
Elastic, invented in 1820 by Thomas Hancock who founded the British rubber industry, is also produced from latex. Today, rubber is mainly made artificially.
Similarly, in 1839, a German chemist, Eduard Simon, accidentally came across what he called Styrol (now known as styrene) while experimenting with the distillation of a natural resin of the Turkish sweetgum tree. However, he did not realise the potential of what he had discovered until his work was resurrected in the early 1900s by Hermann Staudinger to become the basis of polystyrene.
Another plant-derived substance, and the first stable man-made material to be considered as the forerunner of the plastics family, was called Parkesine. It was unveiled by Alexander Parkes at London’s Great International Exhibition in 1862 and used to make objects like buttons and cutlery handles.
Derived from cellulose, it could be heated, moulded into whatever shape was needed and then cooled to retain this shape – much like every other plastic. Cellulose also gave rise to celluloid, most famous for its revolutionary use in photographic film, and the thin sheet plastic, cellophane.
Bakelite was invented in 1907. It was different as it was the first plastic to be made from a non-plant source.
A hard resin formed from formaldehyde and phenol (a chemical that comes from coal tar), its manufacture was perfected by a Belgian inventor Leo Baekeland (although earlier formaldehyde combination plastics had been invented just before 1900).
Non-conductive, like plastics in general, Bakelite was initially used as an insulator for electrical wires (hence its use in old plugs and light switches) but went on to be made into all kinds of everyday objects from decorative bowls and cigarette holders to telephones and jewellery. The Bakelite Corporation’s tagline was ‘the material of a thousand uses’, which could equally be applied to all plastic today.
Bakelite had its problems, however. It was brittle and colouring it proved difficult (most Bakelite objects are either black or various shades of brown). Its use died out and it was gradually replaced by next-generation plastics which included vinyl and the clear plastics acrylic and Plexiglass.
In 1930, Badische Anilin & Soda-Fabrik, better known as recording tape manufacturer BASF, used the work of Simon and Staudinger to start commercially manufacturing polystyrene, which could be injected, extruded or moulded.
Later, the Dow Chemical Company produced the first foamed polystyrene (made from beads) which they dubbed Styrofoam – a light, air-filled yet strong insulating plastic that went on to be used in disposable cups, packaging and the building industry.
By the 1930s, a range of synthetic plastics was being produced in a variety of colours: polyester, polyvinylchloride (PVC), polythene, polyurethanes and nylon. This is now seen as the most significant era in the history of plastics.
Manufacture was taken over by petrochemical companies who turned crude oil into mass-produced plastics for every conceivable commercial and domestic requirement. It was endlessly versatile, very difficult to break and easy to clean – a miracle material.
The ubiquitous and now controversial plastic drinks bottle was born after the development of polyethylene in 1941, as it was discovered that this type of plastic can withstand up to two atmospheres of pressure. In 1948, Tupperware was invented.
Inexpensive to mass-produce, plastics quickly became an integral part of our disposable society – the basis of toys, clothes, computers, televisions, furniture, cutlery and the bags and packaging surrounding them. By simply tweaking the polymer chains, a plastic suitable for any form or function could be made.
Today, the robustness of plastic has also proved to be its downfall.
Plastic can be divided into two types: thermoplastic and thermoset. Thermoplastic can be reheated and reshaped but thermoset plastic cannot. It is therefore the most polluting of plastics, as it cannot be recycled and takes thousands of years to degrade.
But any plastics that find their way into the sea are also broken down by the environment into microplastics that can invade living organisms, including, ultimately, ourselves.
So, as we ingest increasingly more of our miracle invention, is our DNA chain slowly becoming a polymer one?
By Catherine Rose