From Environmental Saviour to Scourge
By Sadira Sittampalam
Ceylon Today Features
Today, plastics are everywhere - literally. From finding it in the oceans to remote and seemingly pristine settings such as the snow of the Alps and the Arctic; plastic has become such a huge problem. But how did we get here? Well, all of this plastic originated from one object that ironically isn’t even made of plastic.
Looking for an alternative
So the beginning of the story of plastic actually starts in a place you wouldn’t really expect - billiard balls. Billiard balls used to be made of ivory for elephant tusks and so in the 19th century when excessive hunting caused elephant populations to decline, billiard ball makers began to search for alternatives, offering significant rewards to anyone who could provide a solution.
This is where an American named John Wesley Hyatt came into play, taking up this challenge in 1863. Over the next five years, he was able to invent a new material called celluloid, which is made from cellulose, a compound found in wood and straw. However, this material didn’t really provide him with an alternative to billiard balls - the material was not nearly heavy enough and didn’t bounce right on the table. But this material proved to be useful in a lot of other ways. It could be shaped, tinted and patterned in order to mimic more expensive, natural materials like tortoiseshell, horn, linen and amber. This is how the first plastic was created.
Plastic is a word that originally meant ‘pliable and easily shaped’, but now it describes any material made of polymers, which are the large molecules consisting of the same repeating subunit. While ‘plastic’ is usually meant to refer to the synthetic human-made plastics, polymers are also found in living things. The unifying feature of plastic is that they start out soft and malleable and can be moulded into a particular shape.
This discovery was pretty revolutionary - for the first time, humans were not constrained by the limits of nature when it came to manufacturing. Humans could create all new materials. This development was even praised as an environmental saviour, as it protected creatures like the elephant or the tortoise from being hunted for materials. And it is true that it did save a lot of our natural materials from being stripped from the earth at the time - but only to cause worse environmental issues in the future.
While celluloid was the first official plastic, it was actually highly flammable which made its production pretty risky. This is why other inventors continued this line of work, hunting for alternatives for celluloid. In 1907, Leo Baekeland, a chemist, combined phenol (a waste product of coal tar) and formaldehyde, creating a hardy new polymer called Bakelite. This material was the first fully synthetic plastic as it contained no molecules found in nature. Bakelite was a lot less flammable than celluloid and the raw materials needed for its creation were readily available. This material was able to replace shellac, a natural electrical insulator. However, its uses did not stop there, it was also very durable, heat resistant and unlike celluloid, ideally suited for mechanical mass production.
The development of plastics
Bakelite was soon marketed as the ‘material of a thousand uses’ and led to many major chemical companies to invest in the research and development of new polymers. In the 1920s, researchers first commercially developed polystyrene, a spongy plastic which is used in insulation. Then came polyvinyl chloride, or as it is popularly known, vinyl, which was flexible yet hardy. Acrylic glass was then created which were transparent, shatter-proof panels. In the 1930’s, nylon was the latest invention in the development of plastics, being a polymer designed to mimic silk but with many times its strength.
It was in 1933, that polyethylene, one of the most versatile plastics, was created. It is still used today to make such a wide variety of things from grocery bags to water bottles to bulletproof vests. New manufacturing technologies also helped the rapid growth of the plastic industry, particularly through the invention of a technique called injection moulding, which made it possible to insert melted plastics into moulds of any shape where they would then rapidly harden. Not only did this create so many new possibilities for products in new varieties and shapes, it also made it easier to inexpensively and rapidly produce plastics at a large scale.
The effects of World War II
While this new material was something that a lot of people saw as an economical way to create items that had once been unaffordable to lots of people, it went on to be used pretty much everywhere - particularly during World War II. During the war, the plastic production in the United States increased by 300 per cent. Soldiers wore new plastic helmet liners and water-resistant vinyl raincoats, while pilots sat in cockpits made of plexiglass and relied on parachutes made of resistant nylon.
After the war ended, plastic manufacturing companies that had popped up during wartime started to look for ways to stay in business, turning their attention to consumer products. This meant that plastics were taking over basically every other material from things like furniture and clothing to televisions and radios. Plastics also opened up new possibilities for packaging products, particularly to keep food and other products fresh for longer. Within just a few decades, this material changed the world as we know it, bringing convenience and cost-effectiveness.
While plastics might have been the new big thing in the first half of the 20th century, this optimism for the material did not last. People were becoming increasingly more aware of environmental problems with major oil spills happening and raising concerns about pollution. Thus, when plastic debris was first observed in the ocean in the 1960s, people were pretty perplexed. Moreover, plastics also became a word that would be used to describe things that were cheap, flimsy or fake.
In the 1970s and 80s, anxiety about waste increased further, with plastic becoming a pretty big sore spot since plastic lasts basically forever in the environment. While the plastics industry themselves offered recycling as a solution, this process was and still is far from perfect, with most plastic still ending up in landfills or in the environment. This is made even worse as many plastics are designed to be single-use, creating a lot of waste that just doesn’t decompose.
The future of plastics
With the reputation of plastics suffering a great deal in recent times, especially since the growing concern that they pose a threat to human health, plastics has now become the enemy. With plastics found everywhere in our world - including our own bodies (plastic has been found in our poop), researchers continue to worry about the effects of plastics on our children and what this continued accumulation means for future generations. This is not to mention the terrible consequences it has had on our environment and the animals that populate it.
Despite all of this, plastics are critical to modern life. There are no easy steps that can be taken to replace such a versatile material, which means that in this century, the problem will be finding a solution to plastic use, whether it is by slowly reducing our use and ushering in better biodegradable plastics to finding new ways to recycle existing plastic.