The history of plastic

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

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In a nod to the two international environment observances this week — World Environment Day today Tuesday, June 5 and World Oceans Day on Friday, June 8 — we will be publishing a week-long series of stories focusing on the rise, management and negative effects of plastics and the steps governments and industries have been taking to reduce its use.

Plastic is everywhere and in everything. From outer space, to underwater; from military defence systems to motor vehicles; food packaging to cosmetics; kitchen utensils to fabrics and clothing, stationery and toys.

You may be tempted to think that it was always around.

In some respects you would be correct, for the very first plastics were made by nature. For example, did you know that rubber from a rubber tree is actually a plastic?

However, the first man-made plastic — called Parkesine — wasn't invented until the 1860s. It was the work of Alexander Parkes, a metallurgist and inventor from Birmingham, England.

Parkesine plastics were made from organic materials, by dissolving nitrocellulose (a flammable nitric ester of cotton or wood cellulose) in solvents such as alcohol or wood naphtha and mixing in plasticisers such as vegetable oil or camphor.

Parkes's business partner, Daniel Spill, later patented Xylonite, a more-stable improvement upon Parkesine.

But the big breakthrough — arguably the birth of the modern plastics era — came in 1907, with the accidental invention of Bakelite by Belgian-born American Leo Baekeland.

It was the first synthetic plastic to be derived not from plants or animals, but from fossil fuels.

Baekeland combined formaldehyde with phenol, a waste product of coal, and subjected the mixture to heat. His work opened the floodgates to a torrent of now-familiar synthetic plastics — polystyrene in 1929, polyester in 1930, polyvinylchloride and polythene in 1933, and nylon in 1935.

But what really drove the industry's growth was the Great War, with plastics featuring in everything, from military vehicles to radar insulation. Petrochemical companies dived in head first and built plants dedicated to turning crude oil into plastic. By the end of the War in 1945, the industry faced a horrendous glut.

To keep production running, they turned their attention to the mass consumer goods market, with new products such as Tupperware, launched in 1948.

Professor of inorganic chemistry at University College London Andrea Sella uses the example of polyethylene terephthalate, invented in 1941 and used to make bottles for carbonated and other beverages, to show how versatile these cheap new materials could be.

“There are literally now hundreds of thousands of different kinds of polymers, and their properties can be changed just by tweaking their structure,” he says.

“A standard British milk bottle is made of polyethylene, made from a building block C2H4. If you add just one carbon, and go to polypropylene, what you have is a much more robust material.”

Synthetic plastics have dominated the consumer landscape primarily because it is sturdy and durable. But that advantage is, of course, also a great disadvantage.

As is evidenced in country after country, plastic sits in a landfill, or litters a street, the coastline, the ocean floor for thousands of years without decomposing.

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