There are literally billions of pieces of plastic around the world. Ever since we were born, we have been using things made out of it. When you were a baby, you may have used a baby bottle or a binky. Toys all throughout your childhood. Plastic bags at the grocery store. Traffic cones, Saran wrap, zip locks, car parts, toothbrushes, every cleaning supply in your house (and the list goes on and on!). But where did this material that we are all so dependent on come from? Let’s look at the history of plastics and see just what we are dealing with.
What even is Plastic?
The word ‘plastic’ means pliable and easily shaped and is a category of materials known as Polymers. Polymers have a molecular structure with a strand of many similar sub units and are naturally found in nature. Cellulose is one of the most common natural polymers that you’ve probably heard of, and is located in the cell wall of every green plant.
Basically, humans took something natural and biodegradable, put it in a lab, and copied it with synthetic materials. Why?
…to save the Elephants!
It was after the first Industrial Revolution in 1869 and billboards started to be produced for advertising. With too many billboards and not enough elephants, a New York Firm put an offer of $10,000 on the table for anyone that could produce a substitute for ivory. In walks John Wesley Hyatt who created the first synthetic polymer by treating cellulose (derived from cotton fiber) with camphor (a waxy, transparent solid derived from an Asian Evergreen). Hyatt produced a material that was malleable and could be transformed into many shapes, making the use of tortoiseshell, horns, ivory, and linen obsolete. It was a revolutionary discovery at the time, like if we had flying cars now. It also made the social and economic classes more even since the new celluloid polymer was much more affordable and easier to get.
No doubt that Hyatt started this revolution, but then Leo Bakeland came around and took it up a notch. In 1907 Bakeland created the first completely synthetic plastic (meaning it had no natural molecules found in nature) which he named Bakelite. This was for the purpose insulating the ever growing electrical grid of the United States. Bakelite was the ideal material for the future. It was durable, heat-resistant, and perfect for mass manufacturing (unlike the inferior celluloid) because it can be molded into virtually any shape you could dream up.
When WW ll started, the use of plastics became necessary. Natural resources were hard to get, making them scarce and expensive. The Great Depression was just ending and plastic was here and it was cheap.
It replaced everything from steel in vehicles, to paper and glass in packaging, and even wood furniture. For the war, they started using plexiglass windows in air crafts and the creation of nylon provided paracord for parachutes, ropes, helmet liners, and body armor. During the War alone, plastic production went up 300% in the U.S…. and has not slowed down at all.
In the 1960s a new revolution stared happening. An Environmental Revolution. People started observing the plastic pollution happening in the oceans and started to speak out about it. There were concerns about chemical pesticides, and in 1969 there was an oil spill off the coast of California that caught on fire and raised even more environmental concerns.
In the 1970s and 80s, it became apparent that plastic doesn’t break down naturally, yet almost all disposable products are made with plastic. This has caused a lot of anxiety with society throughout the years. The plastic industry is trying to get a successful recycling program together, but with so many kinds of plastic out there that can either not be recycled or falls through the strainers at the plants, most of it still ends up in landfills or the ocean.
There are some things that as a society we cannot revert on- mainly computers, cell phones, and technology. Without plastics, we wouldn’t have any of those things. And getting rid of cell phones? You would have a Millenial Revolt!! Scientists are now actively working on going back to using naturally derived celluloids for bioplastics and creating plastics that are truly biodegradable.
There is no doubt that science and technology have hurt and helped us as a species. But instead of just putting things out in the world because we CAN, we need to be producing things that will help society and the future of this planet. It’s time to really start paying attention to everything we use, every day. Do we really need this single-use plastic water bottle? Can we wait until we can fill our reusable one up? Do you have a reusable water bottle? And do you realllllly need to drink out of a straw? If yes, please get a reusable one and save the turtles. We can start to rid ourselves of plastic, we just need to start paying attention to what we are even using FIRST.