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History of Plastic Use From Parkesine To Nylon

Have you ever considered the history of plastics? Who invented it? Plastic is an integral part of human life. Everything we use for our upkeep and daily lifestyle contains some form of it.

We use them to eat, drink water, carry and store items, and many other uses. However, the constant rise in plastic pollution has people questioning why we started using this material.   

In this article, we will explore the definition and types of plastic. We will briefly discuss the history and origins of plastic and plastic waste. We will talk about bioplastics, an alternative to synthetic plastics. 

Related Read: Plastic Pollution Facts & Statistics.

What is plastic?  

plastic battles
Photo by Polina Tankilevitch on Pexels.

Plastic is a durable material made from petrochemicals. They are from polymers, long molecules, and built-in chains of carbon atoms. The spaces between the chains contain hydrogen, nitrogen, and sulfur. Sometimes, it can be combined with plant cellulose, making it semi-synthetic plastic. 

Plastics have two classifications: thermoplastics and thermosets. Thermosets are plastics you can only use once. They don’t become soft when heated, and you can’t recycle them. Thermoplastics, on the other hand, are recyclable plastics. Reshaping them into other shapes is easy because they become soft when passed through heat. 

Plastics have varying degrees of toughness, strength, hardness, resilience, and heat resistance because of the chemical modification required for plastic production. Some types of plastic are:  

  • High-density Polyethylene (HDPE) and Low-density Polyethylene (LDPE)
  • Polypropylene (PP)
  • Polyurethane (PU)
  • Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
  • Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) 
  • Polystyrene (PS)
  • Polyamide (PA)

The human manufacturing industry uses plastic to make a lot of items. These items include polystyrene food containers, plastic packaging and bags, fishing lines, bottles, and other items.

Read more: Different Types of Plastic Waste.

History of plastic production   

tortoise shell
Photo by Jason on Flickr licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (Cropped from original).

Before plastic, humans used natural materials like animal horns, tortoise shells, and natural ivory for various reasons. They used these natural substances as cutlery, combs, medallions, and drinking cups. 

Unfortunately, animals were going extinct because we kept hunting them as raw materials to suit our needs. During the 19th century, many inventors tried to create new materials based on natural materials like cork, blood, and milk.

An inventor named Alexander Parkes succeeded. In 1856, Parkes patented Parkesine, the first plastic2. Parkesine was cellulose nitrate, a mix of cotton fibers dissolved in nitric and sulphuric acids and mixed with vegetable oil. His invention made the pathway for future plastic production endeavors by various scientists and inventors.

The first synthetic plastic  

John Wesley Hyatt invented the celluloid in 1869. He was inspired to invent plastic after a New York firm offered $10,000 to anyone who could create a replacement for ivory. Elephants were close to extinction if humans didn't stop hunting them for their ivory tusks.

John Wesley discovered he could create plastic by treating cellulose from cotton fiber with camphor. Soon, he learned he could turn plastics into any shape he pleased with the camphor treatment.

His discovery paved the way for the manufacturing industry. It broke free from the constraints of natural limitations like wood, rusk, horn, metal, stone, and horn. The media portrayed plastic as the savior of elephants and tortoises. The world saw it as a protector of the natural world from human needs.

John’s discovery freed people from social and economic constraints imposed by the scarcity of natural materials. Manufacturers used it to produce celluloid film, billiard balls, and combs. Materials are easily accessible with inexpensive celluloid. It was the beginning of the plastics industry.

The development of a new plastics industry  

bakelight bangle
Photo by Izzy on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Cropped from original).

In 1907, other inventors tried to improve John Wesley’s invention. However, only Leo Baekeland succeeded. He invented Bakelite, the first fully synthetic plastic. Bakelite contains no organic matter, unlike celluloid, which contains organic material derived from cotton plants.

Baekeland had been searching for a replacement for shellac, a natural electrical insulator. Fortunately, bakelite was an excellent insulator. It was durable, highly heat resistant, and produced in large quantities. 

The media marketed bakelite as the material of a thousand uses. It created endless possibilities because it was easily moldable. To make Bakelite, Leo combined two chemicals, formaldehyde, and phenol, under heat and pressure.

It had a dark-brown and woody appearance. Manufacturers produced the majority of the telephones in the 20th century with Bakelite. With this invention, scientists stopped looking to invent a material that mimics nature. They began to rethink their strategy and tried to rearrange nature in new and exciting ways.

Plastic during the world war  

The major plastic inventions that birthed the modern plastics we use today occurred during World War II. Scientists and inventors prioritized the invention of a synthetic substitute to preserve scarce natural resources. 

During the early decades of the 20th century, petroleum and major chemical companies formed alliances with companies like DuPont, BASF, Dow Chemicals, and ExxonMobil. It will surprise you that these companies are still one of the major producers of synthetic polymers.  

They formed these alliances based on mutual interests to use waste materials from processing crude oil and natural gas to produce plastics. The British company Imperial Chemical Industries was the biggest producer of ethylene gas. They beat their German and US competitors to create synthetic polymers.

In 1933, they accidentally discovered polyethylene after experimenting with ethylene and benzaldehyde under immense pressure and heat. However, the initial experiment failed because of an oxygen leak in the vessel.

They eventually used it to create an insulator for radar cabling during the Second World War, followed by consumer products like shopping bags, Tupperware, and artificial knee joints.  

In 1935, Wallace Carothers invented nylon1. He called it synthetic silk. Various industries welcomed it. They used it to produce parachutes, ropes, body armor, and helmet liners during the war. 

They repurposed plastics during the war, showcasing the adaptability of the new plastics. DuPont branched into making nylon stockings around the 1940s to 1950s.

In 1944, Ray Mclntire created expanded polystyrene. Ray Mclntire worked for Dow Chemical to produce flexible rubber when he accidentally created expanded polystyrene. 

His initial plan was to copolymerize styrene and isobutene under intense pressure. However, only the styrene polymerized. The isobutene vaporized into the polymer matrix. It created a rigid, low-density material.

When did plastic pollution become a problem? 

plastic on beach
Photo by Ron Lach on Pexels.

While the world was happy with the rollout of plastic products, we didn’t stop to think about plastic waste management practices. Single-use plastics had high demands, and manufacturers kept up with mechanical mass production. 

However, the world has learned that plastic doesn’t decompose like organic material, and the abundance of plastic material comes with immense plastic pollution.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, plastic began to lose its positive public image when they first discovered plastic debris in the ocean3. Before this discovery, there was an oil spill off the California coast in 1969 and a fire incident on the polluted Cuyahoga River in Ohio.

These environmental events raised public awareness regarding environmental problems. By extension, people rapidly became aware of the dangers of plastics in the environment. Over time, people referred to cheap, flimsy, or fake objects as plastic. 

In 1972, scientists discovered small plastic particles in the Sargasso Sea. In 1986, some undergraduate students counted plastic litter in surface trawls across the North Atlantic Ocean. It was the first long-term data set on plastic debris. 

There were larger discoveries of plastic pollution in the ocean as years passed. For instance, Captain Charles Moore discovered the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” in 1996. To learn more about this pile of plastic pollution, some students from the Institute of Oceanography went on a scientific expedition to the garbage patch in 2009.

Richard Thompson used the term “microplastic” to refer to tiny plastic particles less than 5 mm in size in 2004. Today, we use the term to refer to tiny plastic litter in ocean sediments and surface waters.

We also know that microplastics are the degraded forms of plastic as they only break down into small pieces as time passes.

Read more: Environmental Impact of Plastic Waste.

What is Bioplastic?  

plastic using sugar cane
Photo by Michael Coghlan on Flickr licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (Cropped from original).

Bioplastic refers to biodegradable plastics made from an organic raw material. You can also call it natural plastics or vegan plastics. The plastic industry uses renewable sources like sugarcane, corn, yeast, or potatoes to make natural plastic.

They extract cellulose acetate and cellulose nitrate polymer compounds in plants to produce plastics. Seaweed, cyanobacteria, and microalgae contain cellulose fibers to produce vegan plastics.   

Two classifications of bioplastics are polylactic acid (PLA) and polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA).  Polylactic acid bioplastics are from sugar cane, corn starch, or cassava, while polyhydroxyalkanoate is from microorganisms that are sometimes genetically engineered.

Read more: What is eco-friendly plastic?

Conclusion   

Plastic benefits us in numerous ways, but we can't overlook the havoc plastic waste wrecks on the environment. Apart from plastic pollution, plastic production also hurts the ecosystem. Burning fossil fuels to create tons of plastic leads to climate change and biodiversity loss. 

We should stop producing more plastic to reduce plastic problems in the environment. Also, plastic recycling is the best way to keep plastic out of the environment.  

1

Wilmington, D., (2000). Wallace Carothers and the Development of Nylon.

2

UK Patent Office. (1857). Patents for inventions. p.255

3Plastic Debris in the Ocean. Authors: Peter Kershaw (chair), Saido Katsuhiko, Sangjin Lee, Jon Samseth and Doug Woodring Science writer: John Smith
By Jennifer Okafor, BSc.

Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.

Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.

Fact Checked By:
Isabela Sedano, BEng.

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