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Plastic: The Invention that Changed (And Possibly Ruined) The World

Written by Collin Fifer

https://flic.kr/p/2h85L9C

Plastic is everywhere. In the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the products we use. We’ve sent it to space, ridden it to the corners of the earth, and littered the ocean with it. 

Before plastic, milk came in glass bottles. Groceries were carried in paper bags. And appliances were formidable hunks of metal.

Without plastic, many of our modern appliances would disappear. Say goodbye to your phone, your computer, your video games. 

On the bright side, though, millions of tons of pollution would also disappear. 

But how did plastic get to be this popular? After all, plastic is a relatively modern invention. How has a material so young bolstered so much of our modern world while contributing so much to its harm?

Let’s take a look at the influential invention of plastic. 

How It Works

To understand plastics, we first have to talk about polymers. 

Polymers, put simply, are long repeating chains of molecules. They are quite common in the world, making up the chemical structure of products like teflon and silicon to natural materials like wood and even DNA. 

To get these molecules, we first need to harvest natural materials like oil, natural gas, and coal, and break them down into small enough components. 

Once these natural materials are refined into small molecules called monomers, the polymerization process begins: linking monomers together.

The resulting materials are then used, often by melting and mixing, to make different plastics.

These different plastics are used in a vast array of products. Consumer goods like DVDs, grocery bags, and plastic bottles; medical equipment like glasses, joint replacements, and lab tech; and heavy-duty industrial products like bulletproof windows and body armor, plumbing, and car parts are all made of plastic nowadays. 

Although this process seems complicated–and plastic manufacturing certainly is no walk in the park–the end result is a material like no other. Its strength relative to its weight makes it invaluable in industrial sectors. Its ability to preserve perishable goods creates endless uses in the culinary sector. And its unique properties make it irreplaceable in electronics. 

But how did plastic become such an integral part of modern infrastructure?

http://Photo by mali maeder from Pexels: https://www.pexels.com/photo/assorted-plastic-bottles-802221/

History

The year elephants were saved was 1862. At least that’s what plastic advertisements at the time claimed. That was the year Alexander Parkes introduced the first ever plastic to the London International Exhibition. 

Although there have been historical references to plastic’s predecessors—like natural rubber used for balls in Mesoamerican games and treated cow horns for windows in the Middle Ages—Parkes’ invention is widely seen as the beginning of modern plastics. 

“Parkesine,” as Parkes humbly dubbed the material, was a happy accident, resulting from his attempts to discover an artificial substitute for waterproof shellack.

To be fair, plastic did go a long way to curb the killing of elephants for their ivory. In the waning 1800s, humankind was in the throes of the industrial revolution, requiring a growing amount of materials to meet skyrocketing consumer demands. 

Billiards, a popular game at the time, is a perfect example of human wants colliding with nature’s limits. The leisure sport’s growing popularity was a major influence on the rising demand for ivory. 

When plastics came to be, products that needed ivory before, like billiard balls, used the synthetic alternative instead. The use of whalebone, tortoise shell, wood, and stone were all reduced thanks to plastic.  

The invention was revolutionary. 

Humans no longer had to rely on the limited supply of natural materials to manufacture goods. They could just whip up some plastic. 

We had freed ourselves from the shackles of nature’s limitations. I guess as far as we cared back then, there was an unlimited supply of fossil fuels to make plastic from. 

Ah, simpler times. 

The environmental can of worms kicked far down the road for future generations to worry about, humans jumped aboard the plastic train en masse. 

In 1869, John Wesley Hyatt improved upon parkesine using celluloid. This new plastic was marketed like mad and became a booming success.

The plastic train was chugging along. 

Leo Baekeland introduced the world’s first fully synthetic plastic in 1907: Bakelite. Humble men, those plastic pioneers.

While Parkesine and celluloid plastics still contained organic polymer chains extracted from natural materials, Bakelite was composed of completely human-made polymers.

Bakelite met the electrical needs of the U.S., proving to be quite the capable insulator. It was durable, heat resistant, and capable of being mechanically manufactured on a mass scale. In fact, this new material was so versatile, it was marketed as “the material of a thousand uses.” 

Plastic’s effectiveness in manufacturing and commercial uses led to an ever-increasing demand. Companies dedicated more and more resources to developing new blends. The rate of plastification was one of “create first, find uses later.” 

However, the golden age was yet to come. The manufacturing demand of World War II saw a plastic boom. 

Nylon, a synthetic substitute for silk, helped to make ropes, parachutes, body armor, and helmet linings. Plexiglass replaced normal glass in aircraft and military vehicle windows. U.S. plastic production increased 300% during the war. 

When the war ended, plastics only grew bigger.  

U.S. consumers bought more and more goods made from synthetics. In cars, it replaced metal parts. In homes, it replaced glass windows. In grocery stores, it replaced paper bags and glass bottles. 

Plastic came to represent an almost utopian view of the future, where humans could use this safe, sanitary, and cheap material to enjoy boundless material wealth. 

As the 20th century drew to a close, though, the public became more aware of environmental problems. The horrors of the effects of chemical pollution and oil spills on the environment turned public perception against the material these resources help make. 

Single-use plastics and the culture of disposable goods caused a plastic waste problem. 

Plastic was no longer the safe, sustainable material of the future. It was a cheap representation of modern industry’s impact on the earth. 

The plastics industry itself came up with a possible solution: recycling. A concerted effort saw many municipalities include recycling efforts in their waste disposal programs. More on that in a bit.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Plastic_Pollution_in_Ghana.jpg

Impact

There’s a good chance you are interacting with a plastic product at any given time of the day; even now. 

But this abundance of plastic products has contributed significantly to pollution problems . Plastic’s environmental damage is, perhaps, its most commonly known impact.

Efforts have been taken to combat this growing problem. Biodegradable plastics and alternative materials have gained popularity in recent decades. And recycling programs have become commonplace in waste collections services, though with results falling short of the rate of pollution.

Despite recycling efforts and their benefits, plastic waste still finds its way into nature and landfills. Many environmentalists claim plastic waste as one of humanity’s biggest environmental threats, often citing the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—a Texas-sized dump of plastic garbage floating around the Pacific Ocean.

Despite a widespread view of plastic as cheap and knowledge of the dangers of plastic waste, plastics are still widely used. In fact, there is an estimated 8.3 billion tons of plastic in existence today. Even more astonishing: 6.3 billion tons of that existing plastic is trash. 

Plastic production has increased two hundred-fold since its PR heyday in the ‘50s. Even with its worsening public image and environmental impact over the decades, plastic manufacturing has steadily grown.

Advocates laud plastic for its versatility and ease of use in a wide range of manufacturing sectors. And there is no doubt it has been essential for the development of modern industry. But plastic is not without its drawbacks. 

There is no doubt our modern world needs plastic, but it is becoming increasingly evident that our earth needs saving from its negative impact. Thankfully, countless experts have answered the call.

Since the biggest problem with plastic is that it does not decompose, companies have created bioplastics from organic, biodegradable materials such as seaweed, food waste, vegetable fats and oils, and woodchips. These bioproducts perform the same tasks as plastic, while offering consumers the chance to throw them away, guilt-free. 

Alternatives to single-use plastics are gaining popularity. Restaurants and grocery stores are offering paper and metal straws and bags. The reusable movement has even gained enough popularity that China instituted a nationwide ban of single-use plastic bags and straws. 

But this still leaves the millions of tons of plastic waste littering our world. This, too, is an issue being tackled. Organizations like The Ocean Cleanup are developing technologies to remove waste from rivers and oceans. They’re even tackling the mammoth task of cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. 

Creative ways of using plastic waste are bolstering recycling efforts. Plastic roads, a practice started in India, is gaining popularity. India has installed over 60,000 miles of plastic roads, while the technology is starting to be incorporated in more roads in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the U.S. 

We’re even finding ways now to make plastic decomposable. A team of scientists from Pakistan even discovered aspergillus tubingensis, a type of mushroom capable of degrading and dissolving plastics. 

All of these solutions are making a dent in the plastic problem we face today. But they still have their work cut out for them. Decades of plastic manufacturing has made our modern world dependent on the material and built up mountains of waste to be cleaned. 

Thanks to modern recycling efforts and research into alternative materials, we are starting to control our plastic habit. Plastic may be everywhere, but that doesn’t mean it has to stay like that. 

Sources

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_plastic_development

https://www.acplasticsinc.com/informationcenter/r/7-different-types-of-plastic-and-how-they-are-used

https://www.livescience.com/60682-polymers.html

https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-27442625

https://dc.fandom.com/wiki/Plastic_Man

https://www.plasticsindustry.org/history-plastics

https://www.sciencehistory.org/the-history-and-future-of-plastics#:~:text=Plastics%20made%20possible%20the%20development,in%20heating%20and%20in%20transportation.

http://heathermdavis.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Life-and-Death-in-the-Anthropocene.pdf

http://www.fastenercomponents.com/news/things-that-plastic-has-replaced/

https://www.bpf.co.uk/plastipedia/how-is-plastic-made.aspx#[1%20NEW]

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7239621/#:~:text=Petrochemicals%20can%20be%20used%20to,polyvinylchloride%3B%20also%20pesticides%20and%20fertilisers.

https://www.bbcearth.com/news/5-unexpected-solutions-to-the-plastic-crisis

https://www.loc.gov/item/global-legal-monitor/2021-03-23/china-single-use-plastic-straw-and-bag-ban-takes-effect/

https://theoceancleanup.com/

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