The History of Plastic

Plastic, by literal definition, is a synthetic material made from a range of different organic polymers that are malleable while soft, and can be moulded into desired forms, which then set into a rigid or slightly elastic state. Plastic, when defined generally - is almost everything we associate with modern life. Comfort, convenience, disposability. Literally almost everything we use in our day to day lives is or contains some form of plastic. From things we use in our homes - like bowls, clothespins, baskets, coasters, buckets, etc to things we need at work - even pens, files and staplers - plastic, in some shape or form, is all around us. 

Plastic was initially created for a want of cheaper,  more durable alternatives to paper  and most importantly a more environmentally friendly alternative which required wood that was felled from trees. Other materials that existed at the time like metal and stone were hard to obtain and process, so inventors at the time began exploring and experimenting with lightweight, durable and inexpensive materials that could be mass produced and sold at cheaper prices. 

Enter plastic - a material made from petroleum, that had all the qualities the inventors desired - it was durable, lightweight, easy to process and most importantly, cheap to produce on a large scale. A material that would soon become an integral and unextractable part of day to day human life.  

With the creation and production of plastic came the beginning of plastic pollution. The history of plastic pollution is extensive because plastic has a very long life - it is nearly indestructible. In essence, plastic isn’t destroyed, it is merely broken down into smaller forms like microplastics that infiltrate the natural environment, where it is absorbed and ingested by marine and animal life.  

The first man-made plastic, or polymer, was created in 1862 by Alexander Parkes. He named it Parkesine. While Parkesine was made from organic compounds, specifically cellulose, Dr. Leo Bakeland created the world’s first entirely synthetic plastic called Bakelite. This marked the start of the modern plastic industry. 

In the 1930’s, Wallace Carothers, a chemist from DuPont (a leading American chemical manufacturer) discovered a new combination of polymers that could be stretched and formed into durable threads, mimicking the qualities of silk. This new material was Nylon. 

The onset of World War II had a huge impact on the manufacturing and consumption of plastic materials. During the war, plastic materials began to be used in various, different ways. Nylon, for example, was ordered in tonnes for the military to use in making ropes and parachutes. Polyethylene, another new form of plastic, was created in England in 1933. This new, lightweight plastic lead to the discovery of even more synthetic polymers in different combinations. Silicon implants were discovered in 1962, followed by PVC in 1969 and HDPE plastic in 1970. 

Since the mid 20th century, the use of plastic materials has grown exponentially - it is simply an aspect of daily life. Products like combs, toothbrushes, dustbins, chairs, tables and storage boxes are all made of plastic. Shampoo bottles, food wrapping and even the outer casing of electronic items like remote controls are all made of plastic. 

To put it simply - we literally start and end our day with plastic. The toothbrush you use in the morning, your bottle of hand cream and even your phone charger, our world is like a dome - of plastic. Its convenience and durability is what makes plastic an attractive choice, but its durability is a double edged sword - it is this sturdiness that makes plastic non biodegradable