Today, plastic is everywhere. We use it to hold everything from bleach to food and build things, like cars. However, things used to be different. The only plastics available were ones that occurred in nature, such as cellulose in plants.
While we use the word ‘plastic’ to refer to the synthetic plastics we use so often, it originally meant ANYTHING that could be easily shaped. Synthetic plastics are a type of polymer. Polymers are built of long chains of molecules. There are many naturally occurring polymers that existed before our plastic existed. Early plastics were made with natural polymers.
IVORY AND CELLULOSE
Back in Victorian times, billiard balls were made out of ivory from elephant tusks. The game became increasingly popular, creating a worrying effect. Elephants were being slaughtered. A firm in New York offered a reward of $10,000 to anyone who could make a substitute for ivory. John Wesley Hyatt had a solution.
Hyatt used cellulose from cotton fibre and camphor to create his 1869 invention. He called it Celluloid. It could mimic natural substances like tortoiseshell, which was used to make combs at the time. Celluloid was only the beginning.
The first fully synthetic plastic arrived in 1907. Leo Baekeland was working to make substance to replace shellac. Shellac was used for electrical work. It is a natural substance, which made it difficult to meet the increasing demand for electricity in America. Mass production of shellac was impossible.
So, Baekeland made Bakelite. It was made by putting formaldehyde and phenol, a waste product of coal tar, under pressure and heat. Bakelite could be mass-produced, and the plastics craze began.
WORLD WAR 2
As the world was rocked by World War 2 plastics became important. Developments in synthetic plastics gave the substance numerous purposes. Armies used plastic for multiple things, from plastic helmets to plexiglass on warplanes.
Nylon was especially helpful. It was created to mimic silk but was more durable. Nylon was used to make body armour, parachutes, ropes, and other items. Thanks to the war, plastics production went up 300 per cent in the States.
CONSUMERS AND CONCERNS
When the war finally ended, and the depression was over people had cash to spend. Plastic found its way into just about every product on the market. People were thrilled to have a versatile, affordable product. But it had its costs.
In the 1960s people began to see the environmental costs of plastic. People noticed plastic in the ocean. Through the 1970s and 80s, the concern grew. Some plastics can take decades to decay, and many release gases or turn into fragments as they decay. Microplastics, like the little beads in a facial scrub, make their way up the food chain, from the smallest fish to humans.
Plastics also have negative health effects. Small amounts of plastic chemicals can leach into food kept in plastic containers. Over time, these amounts can build up and create health problems. Microwaving food in plastic containers can increase the leaching, but it can happen just from storing food in plastic.
Some chemicals are known to be dangerous like, BPA. However, a BPA free plastic may be just as bad or worse, since little is known about some of the chemicals replacing it. Health effects from some types of plastics include cancer, birth defects, and breathing problems, to name a few.
To avoid plastics, use metal or porcelain containers for hot drinks, use less canned food and avoid heating plastic. Scientists have been working on environmentally safe plastics for years. I hope a solution will be found soon.
It’s strange to think that plastic began as a solution for an environmental problem by replacing ivory. Nowadays plastics ARE an environmental problem. I can’t think of a practical way to keep away from plastics long term, can you? Let me know in the comments!
The plastic we have today is EVERYWHERE, even the ocean. We need to use plastics responsibly while we wait for an environmentally safe solution. Next time you see plastic, think about the environmental cost without them AND with them. Can you find a solution?