The history of plastic

Plastic balls

Currently, plastic is one of the most contested materials and yet our daily lives are full of it. Like the solutions and the problems it creates, its history is also ambiguous. When it first appeared, plastic caused an absolute sensation and was even touted as a wildlife savior. Today, just a few decades after the golden age of plastic, we produce over 50 times more of it. Now we understand that once created, it stays here forever, does not decompose, gets into water and food, releases harmful substances into the soil. But like any new invention, there are solutions – they look back for inspiration.

How playing pool creates plastic

In the 1860s, ivory products such as billiard balls became very popular. But in order for the people of that time to have beautiful objects, wild nature paid a heavy price - the death of these animals. Also, ivory was expensive and difficult to find. In search of alternatives, Michael Phelan, known as the father of modern billiards, announced a reward of 10,000 US dollars for the person who created a good enough substitute.

The predecessor of today's plastic - called Celluloid

This inspired the American inventor John Wesley Hyatt, and so in 1869 he patented Celluloid, a plastic-like material made from cotton fibers and camphor. The invention caused a sensation, and advertisements praised the new material as a savior of elephants and nature.

Creation of the first synthetic Plastic

Leo Baekeland

The year was 1907, when the Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland patented his invention Bakelite and thus became the father of the plastics industry. Bakelite was the first fully synthetic plastic, and its marketing motto was "The material with a thousand uses" because it gave endless possibilities for shaping into any number of objects.

And as he wrote in his diary on July 11, 1907: "If it is not very mistaken, this invention will prove important in the future."

Baekeland was born in Belgium, into a poor family of a shoemaker father and a servant mother, but despite the difficulties young Leo was very studious. Although his parents were uneducated, they supported him and he went to night school. Later, the young man won a scholarship to the University of Ghent and at the age of 20 defended his doctorate in chemistry. After he got married, he moved to live in New York. He amassed such a fortune producing photo paper that he could afford not to work.

In July 1907, when he wrote in his diary, he experimented with formaldehyde and phenol. What Backeland then invented was the first fully synthetic plastic, Bakelite, and he was right about its future importance. He became so famous that even Time magazine put his picture on its cover without the need to explain who he was.

The Bakelite corporation created by the inventor was not modest in advertising its product. She noted that humans had managed to transcend the old classification of animals, minerals, plants and that there was now a "fourth boundless kingdom". It sounds exaggerated, but it's true. Until then, scientists tried to imitate or improve natural substances. The first plastics, like celluloid, were plant-based. Baekeland himself was looking for an alternative to the resin secreted by the beetles, which was used to insulate electricity. But you quickly realized that Bakelite could be used for much more. Bakelite Corporation called it "the material with a thousand uses." And again she was not wrong. It was used in telephones and radios, in guns and coffee mugs, in pool balls and in jewelry. Bakelite was even included in the first atomic bomb.

The success of Bakelite also inspired new creations. What other artificial materials can be created with properties not necessarily found in nature? The incredible success of Hyatt and Baekeland motivated major chemical companies to invest in exploring the possibilities of synthetic plastics, and so in the 1930s several types of plastics appeared that we still use today. Polyester appeared, used many times for packaging, nylon, which became popular in the media, and polyethylene, which is used in plastic bags.

During World War II, these materials played a key role in the military - they were used in airplanes, clothing, parachutes and all kinds of other equipment. And when the war ended, new products, such as Tupperware, appeared on the consumer goods market.

The first problems with Plastic

Bunch of plastic products

After the end of the war, when people could enjoy life again, plastic flooded the whole society. At the time, it was a fascinating technological innovation with the promise that man could now create whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, without being dependent on nature. But this fame did not last too long. The image of plastic began to gradually change. Despite the image problems, however, half a century later, plastic production has grown manifold. This was despite growing evidence of environmental problems, and in the 1960s, the excitement went in a different direction. Then the first plastic waste was noticed in the windows and the public, especially in the scientific circles, began to think about the environmental consequences of the industry.


Close-up on micro plastic particles on the fingers under a magnifying glass

Unlike other materials, plastic does not degrade, but breaks down into small pieces called microplastics. These particles, through rainwater, enter the cycle of nature. The particles are even found at high altitudes and in very remote places, such as the Arctic. You may already know that as it becomes part of the food chain and nature, microplastics also enter our food and drinking water. What we don't know yet is what the implications are.

According to research by the World Health Organization, microplastics are literally everywhere, but because this phenomenon is relatively new, more research is needed to say for sure if it exists and what the impact is on people. According to other studies, the ingestion of microplastics can have a negative impact on human chromosomes and thus lead to health problems such as sterility, obesity and malignant diseases. In any case, it is important that more research is done, and that plastic manufacturers, the public and all consumers be held accountable.

Nowadays, only about 30% of plastic produced is recycled, much less than paper or steel. Therefore, the most successful options for dealing with the problem are to use as much as possible little plastic, and when it does become necessary - to be able to recycle it afterwards.

However, some plastic products cannot be recycled. Bakelite is an example of this. Improving results will be an important task. You may have seen that plastic products are marked with small triangles with the numbers one through seven. This is called the Resin Identification Code and is one of the industry's initiatives to help recycling, although the system is far from perfect.

What can we do?

Colorful Plastic Polymer Granules

As consumers, what we can do is focus on the principles of the circular economy – choose products and packaging with the lowest possible environmental footprint, reuse and recycle. The trend in this regard is worldwide and there are more and more "green" profiles from which we draw inspiration.

A notable example of this is the website - an association that unites people from all over the world and encourages construction with so-called "eco-bricks". These are simply plastic bottles filled with plastic waste that can be easily, efficiently and cheaply incorporated into construction while protecting the planet.

A notable example of this is the website - an association that unites people from all over the world and encourages construction with so-called "eco-bricks". These are simply plastic bottles filled with plastic waste that can be easily, efficiently and cheaply incorporated into construction while protecting the planet.

Benefits of Plastic

Plastic also has some environmental benefits.

Cars made with plastic parts are much lighter and, accordingly, use less fuel.

During transport, the low weight of products packed in plastic saves harmful emissions.

Plastic packaging allows preserving the quality of food for a longer time, which reduces food waste and makes sense of the resources (energy, water, area) for its cultivation.

Because plastic doesn't break easily, this is another way it keeps products from going to waste.

Plastic bottles, not glass, would be safer if thrown in the park where our children play.