Look around.  Plastic is everywhere.  The average home has hundreds of pieces of plastic in it.  Toiletries, home appliances, toys, stationery, food packaging, the list is endless. A focus on plastic usage and recycling is currently happening as we begin to understand the scope of it’s impact on our oceans, marine life and health.   The word plastic originally meant ‘pliable and easily shaped’. It’s been making our lives easier for decades, but what exactly is plastic, when was it invented and what is it used for?  Throughout history, the human race has strived to develop materials with benefits not generally found in nature.  When we started using natural materials with plastic-like properties such as gum or shellac.  From there, the industry moved to modify natural materials such as collagen, rubber and nitrocellulose. 

The First Synthetic Polymers

One of the earliest examples of man made plastic was invented by Alexander Parkes in 1855. He named it Parkesine but we know it better as celluloid.   John Wesley Hyatt invented the first synthetic polymer in 1869 in response to a New York’s businesses offer of $10,000 to anyone who could create a substitute for ivory.   The American love of billiards was causing a shortage of ivory, which was used for the balls and was leading to the needless hunting of elephants for their tusks.  Hyatt discovered that it was a great replacement for ivory, tortoiseshell and other similar materials.

Plastic As We Know It

The first synthetic plastics, mass-produced, as we would recognise it today was developed by chemist Leo Baekeland in 1907. He named it Bakelite. As the United States was picking up the pace in providing electricity to homes and industry, it needed a synthetic insulator that was heat resistant, pliable and durable. There was nothing at the time that could be mass-produced to meet the demand.  Bakelite could be moulded into any shape and was marketed by its owners as “the material of a thousand uses”.

A Lifechanging Material

No longer reliant on precious (and expensive) natural resources. Material items were now within reach of the average person. The plastics industry really came into its own in response to the need created by World War II and was used to create everything from helmets, body armor, parachutes, and robes; with these plastics being durable to both heat and pressure.   This ramp-up in the production of plastic products continued after the war. Modern plastic was seen as safe, inexpensive, and clean. It started to replace some steel in cars, wood in furniture, paper and glass.  

Societies Growing Mistrust Of Plastic 

The utopian view soon changed as the environmental problems caused by plastic production and waste plastic came to light. Recycling plastic has gone some way to mitigating the problem but the ecological damage done to the oceans and marine life from items such as plastic bags and bottles is vast.  Plastic also became the byword for cheap, low quality and easily breakable.  Health risks associated with plastic have also contributed to the drop in popularity. Plastic is used a lot to store and preserve food. It was discovered that the certain additives used in the production process to improve flexibility and durability can disrupt hormones in the body as these chemicals leach out into food. With 99 percent of plastics being made from fossil fuels, the creation of plastic has damaging effects on our planet. Plastic results in greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to the rate of climate change; unlike natural substances such as natural polymers which are safe for both humans and the world.

Plastic Is Here To Stay

Even though plastic is generally maligned and mistrusted today, its role in modern life is critical. Mobile phones, computers, and life-saving medical equipment are all possible thanks to plastic.  Industries that can, are looking at alternatives to plastic in their products and packaging. Where that isn’t possible, improved plastic recycling and handling of waste plastics need to happen to prevent further ecological damage.