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Plastics, the Material of a Thousand Uses, a History

The history of plastic derivatives stretches back to ancient civilizations, where people used natural materials like shells, ivory, bone, leather, animal organs, clay pottery, and woven baskets to create a variety of objects and packages. However, it wasn't until the 19th century that the first true plastics were created. These early plastics were made from natural materials like rubber, cellulose, and collagen, and were used to create a variety of products from which we seemingly can’t get away from. (no matter how hard we may try)

plastic bag waste

The Inventor of Plastic As We Know It

The first synthetic plastic, Bakelite, was invented in 1907 by Leo Baekeland, a Belgian-born American chemist. Bakelite was made from a combination of phenol and formaldehyde and was used to create a variety of products, including electrical insulators, jewelry, radios, and telephone casings. Baekeland eventually moved to compression molding where the resin was generally combined with fillers such as asbestos or wood, before pressing it into the final shape. When Baekeland’s friends asked him how he entered the field of synthetic resins, he replied that he had chosen it on purpose, that he was looking for a way to make money.

His first objective was to invent a replacement for shellac, which at that time was made from the shells of Asian lac beetles. Baekeland received many awards, including the Perkin Medal in 1916 and the Franklin Medal in 1940. In 1978, he was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame at Akron, Ohio. As Baekeland got older he became more eccentric, entering fierce battles with his son and his heir over salary and other issues.

He eventually sold the General Bakelite Company in 1939 and, at his son's prompting, he retired. He became a recluse, eating all of his meals from canned goods and becoming obsessed with developing an immense tropical garden on his winter estate in Coconut Grove, Florida. He died of a stroke in a sanatorium in Beacon, New York, in 1944. Baekeland is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, New York.

The Plastics WWII Boom

Low-density polyethylene was first produced in 1933 in England by Imperial Chemical, which quickly became one of the most popular plastics in the world. Polyethylene played a crucial supporting role during World War II. It was initially used as an underwater cable coating and then as a critical insulating material for vital military applications such as radar insulation. This is because it was so light and thin that it made placing radar onto airplanes possible thus vastly reducing the weight. The substance was a highly guarded secret. In the United States, plastic production increased by 300% during World War II. Plastics became commonly known as the “material of a thousand uses.” It was followed by PVC (polyvinyl chloride) in the 1950s, which is still used today to make pipes, window frames, and siding.

eco-friendly toy soldiers

The most common plastic

The 1960s saw the development of polypropylene, which is used to make a wide range of products, including car parts, packaging materials, and carpets. Polyethylene is the most common plastic in the world, it is classified into three types: High-Density, Low-Density, and Linear Low-Density. In the 1970s, polystyrene (also known as Styrofoam) was developed, which is used for insulation, food containers, and foam packaging. Styrofoam is composed of 98% air, making it lightweight and buoyant. Polystyrene does not break down and is often disposed of by being burned. However, burning polystyrene releases styrene gas into the air and produces a mix of toxicants that impair the nervous system.

Plastics in candles

Most candles are made from paraffin, a petroleum byproduct. Paraffin wax was first created by Carl Reichenbach in Germany in 1830 and marked a major advancement in candle-making technology, as it burned more cleanly and reliably than tallow candles and was cheaper to produce. To create paraffin wax candles, petroleum waste is chemically bleached, deodorized, and made into wax. When burned, paraffin wax can release toxic volatile organic compounds into the air, including known carcinogens like alkenes.

globe sitting in plastic

The dark side of plastics continued

Plastic has revolutionized many industries, particularly the packaging industry. It is lightweight, durable, and can be easily molded into a variety of shapes, making it an ideal material for packaging everything from food to electronics. However, the widespread use of plastic has also led to a number of environmental concerns.

One of the major issues with plastic is that it takes hundreds of years to break down in the environment. As a result, plastic waste has accumulated in landfills and the natural environment, causing pollution and damaging ecosystems.

The problem of plastic pollution has gained increasing attention in recent years, and there has been a push to reduce the use of single-use plastics and increase recycling efforts. Some governments have implemented bans on certain types of plastic, such as plastic bags and straws, while companies have started to introduce more sustainable alternatives, such as bioplastics made from plant-based materials such as hemp.

Despite these efforts, the problem of plastic pollution remains a significant challenge. It is estimated that there are more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic floating in the world's oceans, and the issue is expected to worsen unless drastic action is taken.

Overall, the history of plastic is a complex one, with both the benefits and drawbacks of this versatile material coming to the forefront. While it has revolutionized many industries and made our lives easier in countless ways, the environmental impacts of plastic have become increasingly clear and disturbing. Surveys have found micro-plastics in nearly all water sources and even in our food.

Unfortunately our dependence on single-use plastic packaging makes it is difficult to see how we will reverse this trend. These problems are not being fully addressed due to the fact that nearly everything we consume is prepackaged in plastic. It’s difficult to see how we will ever get away from having some form of plastic in our everyday lives. It’s affordability, durability, and widespread use may ensure that it might be here to stay.

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