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How Old is Plastic: Uncovering Its Age and Origins

how old is plastic

The History of Plastic

Plastic has become ubiquitous in modern society, used in everything from water bottles and food packaging to clothing, electronics, and more. However, plastic is a relatively new invention, with its widespread adoption and incorporation into everyday products taking place over just the past century or so.

In the 1860s, scientists began experimenting with substances known as phenols and aldehydes. Through a process called polymerization, these chemicals could be linked together into long chains, creating new materials with novel properties.

One of the first commercially successful synthetic polymers was Parkesine, which was patented in England in 1856. Made from cellulose treated with nitric acid, Parkesine represented an early form of plastic that could be molded when heated.

John Wesley Hyatt came up with the invention of the first synthetic polymer in 1869, propelled by a $10,000 incentive offered by a New York company seeking an ivory substitute. The increasing demand for billiard balls had led to a depletion of natural ivory, which was procured by hunting wild elephants. Hyatt stumbled upon plastic by processing cellulose taken from cotton fiber with camphor. This plastic could be molded into various shapes and imitated natural materials like tortoiseshell, horn, linen, and ivory.

In 1893, Auguste Trillat, a French chemist, made a groundbreaking discovery. He found a way to make casein, which is a milk protein, insoluble. This was done by immersing them in formaldehyde, leading to the creation of a material that was later marketed as Galalith.

In the following decades, other plastic pioneers like Leo Baekeland began developing new types of plastics using similar polymerization techniques. It was Baekeland’s invention of Bakelite in 1907 that marked a major turning point. Bakelite was inexpensive to produce and could be easily molded into a wide variety of objects. Unlike celluloid, its thermal and electrical insulating properties also made it well-suited for industrial applications. The development of Bakelite opened the floodgates for further plastic innovation in the 20th century. It was the dawn of a new era defined by our growing dependence on synthetic polymers in nearly every aspect of life.

From Cellulose to Advanced Polymers

As we talked about before, in the mid-19th century, the development of plastics began with materials like Parkesine, derived from cellulose, which marked the advent of semi-synthetic polymers. However, the first fully synthetic polymer to make its debut was Bakelite in the early 20th century, revered for its non-flammability and heat-resistant properties.

Following the conclusion of World War One, advancements in chemical engineering technology spurred the swift expansion of novel plastic types. This era marked the emergence of the five main types of plastic that we are familiar with today. This paved the way for a plethora of advanced polymers, including:

  • Nylon is known for its strength and is used in products from stockings to toothbrush bristles.
  • In 1927, PVC (polyvinyl chloride) was commercially produced.
  • By 1930, BASF started the production of PS (polystyrene), which is often seen in packaging and plastic bags due to its flexibility.
  • The year 1933 saw the production of HDPE (Polyethylene) by Imperial Chemical Industries. It offers resistance to wear and is used in containers and car parts.
  • PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) was licensed by DuPont in 1941 after its discovery by the employees of the Calico Printers’ Association.
  • The commercial manufacture of PP (polypropylene) was initiated in 1957.
  • Polyester is used in textiles and fiberglass.
  • Kevlar® is renowned for its use in bulletproof vests.
  • Teflon™ (polytetrafluoroethylene) which is known for its non-stick properties in cookware.

Types and Development of Plastics

Types and Development of Plastics

Thermoplastics Vs Thermosets

Plastic materials can generally be classified into two categories: thermoplastics and thermosets. Thermoplastics, such as polyethylene, polypropylene, and polystyrene, can be melted and solidified multiple times without significant degradation of their properties. This makes them ideal for recycling. On the other hand, thermoset plastics, like polyester, undergo a chemical change when they are heated and solidified, which makes them difficult to reshape and recycle.

Here’s how they contrast:

ReusabilityCan be remolded and recycledCannot be remelted or recycled
Heat ResistanceTends to soften with heatRetains form at high temperatures
Typical UsesPackaging, bottles, toysInsulation, adhesives, appliance housings

Bioplastics and Environmental Innovations

In your quest for eco-friendly alternatives, you might also come across biodegradable plastics. These plastics are designed to break down into harmless components when exposed to microorganisms like bacteria or fungi. By exploring the potential of bioplastics and biodegradable plastics, researchers hope to create a more sustainable future for plastics that’s easier on the environment.

The latest chapter in plastic development addresses environmental concerns. Bioplastics are derived from renewable biomass sources like vegetable fats, corn starch, or straw. They often offer the same functionality as conventional plastics but come with the added benefit of being biodegradable or compostable under certain conditions. Innovations in this space include:

  • Biodegradable plastics: These are designed to break down in the environment more quickly than traditional plastics.
  • Synthetic polymers: Some can be engineered to be biodegradable, while others are developed for their superior strength or flexibility.

Production and Applications of Plastic

As you explore the realm of plastics, you’ll discover that their production processes are deeply intertwined with the petrochemical industry, and their applications span from commonplace items like plastic bags to more niche uses in technology and innovation.

Industrial Production Processes

You might have noticed how products made of plastic are virtually everywhere in your daily life. From plastic bags you use for groceries to your furniture and toys, plastic has become a staple in the manufacturing of different products. This is because plastic has unique properties such as low density, low electrical conductivity, transparency, and toughness, which allows it to be made into a wide variety of  products.

Plastics begin their journey in the petrochemical industry, derived mainly from fossil fuels such as petroleum. The process involves cracking and distillation in chemical plants, where raw materials are transformed into resins — the building blocks of plastic. From here, these resins are molded and shaped via various methods:

  • Injection Molding: Ideal for producing high volumes of the same plastic products like toys and combs.
  • Blow Molding: Commonly used for making bottles.
  • Extrusion: Facilitates the production of pipes, wires, and plastic bags.

Plastics in Technology and Innovation

The versatility of plastic doesn’t stop at everyday products. In fact, it plays a significant role in technology and innovation too. For instance, computers and smartphones rely on plastic components for protection and insulation.

It’s found in:

  • Electronics: Insulation for wires, and cases for your gadgets.
  • Medical Field: Disposable syringes and sterile packaging.

Impact on Environment and Waste Management

A white plastic bag in the sea

Challenges of Plastic Pollution

The durability of plastics makes them incredibly useful, but it also contributes to major environmental problems when these materials end up as plastic pollution.

Plastic pollution can contaminate land, water, and ecosystems as it breaks down into smaller and smaller particles known as microplastics. 

In the oceans, plastic waste threatens marine wildlife, with animals mistaking it for food or becoming entangled in it. On land, plastic can leach chemicals into the soil, leading to potential contamination and adverse effects on ecosystems.

Plastic waste can also accumulate in landfills, taking a long time to decompose due to its durability. When not properly managed, discarded plastic bags and other items can block waterways and clog sewers, potentially leading to the spread of diseases such as malaria by providing breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

Recycling and Reducing Plastic Waste

For every piece of plastic ever made, its remnants still likely exist due to its longevity. But you can make a difference through recycling and reducing plastic waste. Plastic recycling processes can convert waste into new materials, helping to reduce the demand for new plastics, save energy, and decrease the amount that ends up in landfills or as microplastics in natural environments.

Despite the fact that only around 9% of plastic waste is successfully recycled, recycling remains a helpful strategy for managing plastic waste and reducing its impact on the environment. Here are some ways you can help:

  • Reduce: Try to minimize your consumption of single-use plastics by using reusable bags, bottles, and containers.
  • Reuse: Repurpose plastic items for other uses before disposing of them.
  • Recycle: Separate your plastic waste according to local guidelines, ensuring it goes into the appropriate recycling bin.

Exploring alternatives to landfills and traditional plastic disposal methods is key to resolving the plastic pollution issue. From biodegradable plastics to innovative waste-to-energy schemes, alternative approaches present opportunities for cleaner disposal.

Regulations, Standards, and the Future of Plastic

Recycling sign next to several plastic bottles

Global Initiatives and Agreements

One notable meeting, the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA 5.2) in February-March 2022, brought together nations to address this pressing issue. During this event, the United States committed to taking action on domestic and international levels to combat plastic pollution.

It’s also worth mentioning that by 2018, 127 countries had implemented regulations for plastic bag usage, some targeting the production process as well. You might be curious about the global treaty being negotiated to ease the burden of plastic waste on our environment.

Innovation in Plastic Production and Utilization

Understanding the future of plastics also involves looking at innovations in plastic production and utilization. One promising development is feedstock recycling, which involves the conversion of plastic waste to its original natural resourcesPyrolysis, for instance, uses heat to break down plastic waste into valuable chemicals and fuels.

Moreover, several ISO standards specifically focus on the plastic lifecycle and its impact on the environment. These standards cover essential areas such as end-of-life assessment, labeling, recycling, composting, and more.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the two main types of plastic?

Plastics can be primarily categorized into two types: thermoplastics and thermosetting polymers. Thermoplastics, such as polyethylene and polypropylene, are materials that can be melted and reshaped repeatedly. On the other hand, thermosetting polymers like Bakelite and vulcanite, once heated and formed, can’t be remelted and remolded.

What is considered the first plastic invention?

The first synthetic plastic invention is credited to Alexander Parkes, who developed a material called Parkesine in 1862. Parkesine was made from cellulose treated with nitric acid and a solvent. This invention laid the groundwork for the development of plastics.

When did plastics start being used commercially?

Commercial use of plastics began in the early 20th century, with Bakelite being the first fully synthetic plastic to be put on the market in 1907. Its heat-resistant properties made it popular for a wide range of applications, including electrical insulators and household goods.

What is the history of plastic?

The history of plastic began with natural materials that exhibited plastic properties, such as rubber and cellulose. In 1862, Parkesine, the first man-made plastic, was invented. Bakelite, created in 1907 by Leo Baekeland, marked the birth of the modern plastic industry. Post World War II, the expansion of chemical technology led to a rapid increase in new types of plastics, fueling the growth of the global plastics industry.

What are some common uses of plastic?

Plastic is used in virtually every aspect of modern life due to its adaptability. Common uses include packaging materials, containers, furniture, toys, medical devices, and electronics. Its lightweight and durable nature makes it ideal for these applications.

Who accidentally invented plastic and how did it happen?

Plastic was not so much accidentally invented as it was the result of deliberate scientific research. Leo Baekeland, the Belgian-American chemist, created the first fully synthetic plastic, Bakelite, in the search for an insulating material. It was through his controlled experiments to find a synthetic substitute for shellac that Bakelite was invented.

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