How Plastics Came Into Existence?

You’re thirsty and so you go and fetch a bottle of water as you check on your phone to purchase new nail paint from Nykaa. You return back, turn on your TV and tear open your favourite chips packet. Let’s pause and take a moment to look at what’s constant in all the above mentioned activities. It’s plastic! Yes. Plastics are present everywhere around us, in various forms making our lives easy. Just as it comes hand in hand with us, we’ve almost forgotten what is plastics, how and when we were introduced to it. Let’s take a look into the rise of plastics, shall we?

What is a Plastic?

Plastics are synthetic(manmade) materials made of polymers. Polymer is a material consisting of repeated chains of large(macro) molecules and hence the name(poly — many ; mer — part). Polymers are as large as millions of atomic units. It is the length of these repeated chains and the pattern in which they’re arranged makes polymers strong, light weight and malleable. Under high pressure and heat, the molecules of polymer enable the plastic to be moulded or shaped into any desired object.

As consumers, we are well aware of Polyethylene Terephthalate(PET) and Polyvinyl Chloride(PVC), Polystyrene(Styrofoam). There are various forms of polymers that are produced at high volume and at low cost. Many disposable items and durable goods are made of plastics like polyethylene, polypropylene, polyvinyl chloride and polystyrene. In contrast to the previous type of plastics, called Engineering plastics that are produced at low volume and high cost like polyacetal, polyamide(commonly known as nylon), polytetrafluoroethylene(Teflon), polycarbonate, etc.

All the plastics and the by products of polymer molecules referred above weren’t found just like that. There was a major breakthrough in the field of chemical industry that led to what is today known as plastics. It all started once upon a time……

History of Plastics

John Wesley Hyatt

Finding of Cellulose — a Bio-plastic

Back in the 1800s, billiards was gaining huge popularity. The balls were made out of natural ivory at the cost of the lives of precious wildlife namely, elephants. Hence, a New York firm claimed to offer $10,000 to anyone that can provide an alternative to ivory.

Although Alexander Parkes invented the first ever man-made plastic called Parkesine in 1862, it required further assistance to come into existence.

By treating cellulose(a main substance found in plant cells), with camphor, a man created a substance that could be moulded into any desired shape. Cellulose is the storehouse of polysaccharide. Thus, the first synthetic polymer was simplified by John Wesley Hyatt in 1869. This invention not only changed the game of billiards but the lifestyle of mankind itself for it gave birth to plastics!

On a brighter side, the rise of plastics silenced the slaughtering of animals as it offered a substitute to natural substances such as tusk, tortoiseshell, horn, linen, ivory, etc. Although the abundant nature and animal kingdom was of much use to mankind, the innovation of plastics was and is still considered a revolutionary embark made by humans, for man was able to create something by himself.

Thus, celluloid became the rescuer of all animal exploitation that was carried in the past to satisfy the never-ending needs of humans. It was inexpensive and easily available. Perhaps, it also led to a more “materialized” lifestyle.

Polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride — Don’t Fret by my Name!

Similar to John Wesley Hyatt, Leo Baekeland, a Belgian-American chemist, was on the lookout for an alternative to shellac, a natural insulator in order to satiate the rapid electric needs of the US. He found a material that was not merely a good insulator. Rather, the material was durable, heat resistant, nonflammable and was suitable for mass production. Thus, Bakelite(obviously named after Baekeland!) shed a new ray of hope that eased artificial production of products as it offered a wide range of users. Bakelite is a first fully synthetic plastic i.e., it has no naturally found molecules in it unlike cellulose. It came into the limelight in 1907.

Final Note

We hope you got an insight into the evolution of plastics and what it is through this article. As a new entrant in the market, cellulose and bakelite triggered the curiosity levels of several chemical companies to find new kinds of polymers and plastics. And that was the end to the beginning of a new era — Plastics!

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