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← A brief history of plastic

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Showing Revision 3 created 09/10/2020 by lauren mcalpine .

  1. Today, plastics are everywhere.
  2. All of this plastic originated
    from one small object—
  3. that isn’t even made of plastic.
  4. For centuries, billiard balls were
    made of ivory from elephant tusks.

  5. But when excessive hunting caused
    elephant populations to decline
  6. in the 19th century,
  7. billiard balls makers began to look
    for alternatives, offering huge rewards.
  8. So in 1863 an American named
    John Wesley Hyatt took up the challenge.
  9. Over the next five years, he invented
    a new material called celluloid,
  10. made from cellulose, a compound found
    in wood and straw.
  11. Hyatt soon discovered celluloid couldn’t
    solve the billiard ball problem––

  12. the material wasn’t heavy enough
    and didn’t bounce quite right.
  13. But it could be tinted and patterned
  14. to mimic more expensive
    materials like coral,
  15. tortoiseshell, amber, and mother-of-pearl.
  16. He had created what became
    known as the first plastic.
  17. The word ‘plastic’ can describe
    any material made of polymers,

  18. which are just the large molecules
    consisting of the same repeating subunit.
  19. This includes all human-made plastics,
  20. as well as many of the materials
    found in living things.
  21. But in general, when people refer
    to plastics,
  22. they’re referring to synthetic materials.
  23. The unifying feature of these
    is that they start out soft and malleable
  24. and can be molded into a particular shape.
  25. Despite taking the prize
    as the first official plastic,

  26. celluloid was highly flammable,
    which made production risky.
  27. So inventors began to hunt
    for alternatives.
  28. In 1907 a chemist combined phenol—
  29. a waste product of coal tar—
  30. and formaldehyde, creating
    a hardy new polymer called bakelite.
  31. Bakelite was much less flammable
    than celluloid and the raw materials
  32. used to make it were
    more readily available.
  33. Bakelite was only the beginning.

  34. In the 1920s, researchers first
    commercially developed polystyrene,
  35. a spongy plastic used in insulation.
  36. Soon after came polyvinyl chloride,
    or vinyl, which was flexible yet hardy.
  37. Acrylics created transparent,
  38. shatter-proof panels
    that mimicked glass.
  39. And in the 1930s nylon took centre stage—
  40. a polymer designed to mimic silk,
    but with many times its strength.
  41. Starting in 1933, polyethylene became
    one of the most versatile plastics,
  42. still used today to make everything
    from grocery bags, to shampoo bottles,
  43. to bulletproof vests.
  44. New manufacturing technologies
    accompanied this explosion of materials.

  45. The invention of a technique
    called injection-moulding
  46. made it possible to insert melted plastics
    into molds of any shape,
  47. where they would rapidly harden.
  48. This created possibilities for products
    in new varieties and shapes—
  49. and a way to inexpensively and rapidly
    produce plastics at scale.
  50. Scientists hoped this economical
    new material
  51. would make items that once had been
    unaffordable accessible to more people.
  52. Instead, plastics were pushed into service
    in World War Two.

  53. During the war, plastic production
    in the United States quadrupled.
  54. Soldiers wore new plastic helmet liners
    and water-resistant vinyl raincoats.
  55. Pilots sat in cockpits made of plexiglass,
    a shatterproof plastic,
  56. and relied on parachutes
    made of resilient nylon.
  57. Afterwards, plastic manufacturing
    companies

  58. that had sprung up during wartime turned
    their attention to consumer products.
  59. Plastics began to replace other materials
    like wood, glass, and fabric
  60. in furniture, clothing, shoes,
    televisions, and radios.
  61. Versatile plastics opened up possibilities
    for packaging—
  62. mainly designed to keep food
    and other products fresh for longer.
  63. Suddenly, there were plastic garbage bags,
    stretchy plastic wrap,
  64. squeezable plastic bottles,
    takeaway cartons,
  65. and plastic containers for fruit,
    vegetables, and meat.
  66. Within just a few decades,
    this multifaceted material

  67. ushered in what became known as
    the “plastics century.”
  68. While the plastics century brought
    convenience and cost-effectiveness,
  69. it also created staggering
    environmental problems.
  70. Many plastics are made of nonrenewable
    resources.
  71. And plastic packaging was designed
    to be single-use,
  72. but some plastics take centuries
    to decompose,
  73. creating a huge build up of waste.
  74. This century we’ll have to concentrate our
    innovations on addressing those problems—

  75. by reducing plastic use,
    developing biodegradable plastics,
  76. and finding new ways
    to recycle existing plastic.