The History of Plastic

History of Plastic

The History of Plastic: A tale of many twists and turns

Now, isn’t that an interesting topic! No? The number one pollutant of all time. We produce over 300 million tons and dump about 8 million tons of plastic into the ocean every year, killing over a million seabirds and over 100,000 turtles and other marine animals every year, poisoning our waters and finally making it on to our plates. One in four fish ingests plastic. Heck, even most of the beers tested had microscopic traces of plastic in it. Got your attention now? Read this for more info – an era of plastic overkill.

Believe it or not, ironically, this killer invention was originally intended to save animal lives – elephants in particular. The problem was that, during the 19th century, ivory based billiard balls were in such demand that they led to rampant poaching of elephants for their tusk, threatening the existence of this magnificent species.

“Plastic – the super-villain, was initially meant to be a superhero!”

Over the years, plastic changed course from its original purpose and on its way, by revolutionising the industrial age, changed the course of humankind as well.  But why go into its history now? As members of iBan Plastic, we are, after all, challenging its place in the market. Let us clear the air – Our fight is against plastic pollution caused by single-use plastic, not against the invention of plastic itself. Besides, It’s important to know, what we are up against!

In this day and age, plastic is anything but uncommon. Many things come to mind when we hear ‘plastic’ – bottles, cheap toys, equipment, utensils, machinery or maybe even just a simple plastic bag. Plastic, which comes from the Greek word ‘plastikos’ (πλαστικός) meant, the ability to be shaped and moulded. It is this magical property along with its near immortal lifespan that led to a breakthrough in the industrial age.

Over the past century and a half, plastic has quite literally replaced countless essential and comparatively scarce resources such as metals, rocks etc. The widespread usage, low cost and dependability on plastic further boosted the development of science, technology, medicine, automobile, aerospace and almost all the other industries, making countless new applications a new possibility.

Here’s a very brief timeline of this incredible invention that has managed to change its course from being the boon to become the bane of humankind.

Brief History of Plastic

19th Century: At the start of this century, it was all trial and error with the recipe for plastic being still quite imperfect. Alexander Parkes developed the earliest version of plastic and called it “Parksine”.

Following up on Parkes’ footsteps, next came Xylonite plastic. However, both of these were using cellulose to provide the unique properties of plastic which were still not hard enough to replace the ivory billiard balls, and plastic failed to raise any public interest.

20th Century: As the previous century was coming to an end, the future of plastic began to turn around. John W. Hyatt accidentally developed Celluloid, which turned out to be a perfect alternative for ivory based billiard balls. Celluloid based flexible photographic films too started gaining preference now. This development was to be the cornerstone, for the future of plastic.

Later on, Galalith, a new form of plastic developed in Germany, also became famous for small plastic objects such as buttons on clothes.

Crossing the chasm: Leo Hendrik Baekeland improved the phenol-formaldehyde reaction, leading to the invention of the first fully synthetic plastic (resin), called ‘Bakelite’. Bakelite had no molecules found in nature.

After Bakelite, the development of plastic along with its potential skyrocketed, and the rest is, of course, history!

Ever since plastic first appeared on stage, some 150 years ago, there have been numerous essential changes in various industries which has led to our modern day lifestyle. In this endeavour, countless new products and technologies were made possible through the invention of plastic, making it an essential building block of our civilisation.

However, abusing power has long been a human trait, which has been known to have caused us numerous downfalls in history. Plastic, one of the most versatile of our inventions, was no exception to this abuse. All the plastic pollution we see around us is proof of this misuse.

On the one extreme, it’s a miraculous boon. On the other, a catastrophic bane. In the middle sits us, humans. Supposedly the most intelligent species, albeit threatening our existence through our ‘own’ inventions. Plastic has stood the test of time and has proved itself. It is now, perhaps, our turn.

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