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The History of Plastic

Plastic is everywhere. I was going to write a blog on plastic and how it is hurting our planet and some alternatives, and I still will, but I wanted to give some background about its history.

For centuries, billiard balls were made of ivory (trust me, I will get to the plastic). When excessive hunting plummeted elephant populations and made ivory a rare and expensive substance, billiard ball manufacturers put out huge rewards for people who could make a cheap, easily produced billiard ball. An American named John Welsey Hyatt took up the challenge and over five years created a new material called celluloid, which was made from cellulose, a compound found in wood and straw. While celluloid, which made its debut in 1869, did not work great as a material for making billiard balls, John Hyatt discovered that it could be easily tinted to look like other objects including coral, mother of pearl, tortoiseshell, and amber. He created what became known as plastic.

The word plastic can be used to describe any material made of polymers, which are large molecules consisting of the same repeating sub-unit. This includes all man-made plastics as well as some materials naturally found in living things. In general, when people refer to plastics, they are referring to the man-made synthetic materials all around us. The unifying feature of these plastics is that they start out soft and malleable and can be molded and hardened into different shapes. While celluloid took the prize for the first plastic, it was not mass-produced because it was very flammable, which made producing it risky and dangerous. Because of this, people started to look for alternative synthetics to celluloid.

Over time, these plastics started improving as people figured out how to make them easier to work with and less dangerous. In 1907, a new plastic called Bakelite was created by mixing Phenol, a waste product of coal tar, and formaldehyde. Bakelite became popular because it was much less flammable than celluloid and it’s raw materials were readily available. In the 1920s, researchers first created polystyrene, which was used in insulation because of its spongey qualities (styrofoam is modern polystyrene). Soon after, polyvinyl chloride, or vinyl, was all the rage because of its flexibility and hardiness. Then acrylics were spreading like wildfire because they could be used as shatterproof glass due to their strength and transparency. Then, in the 1930s, nylon had the spotlight because it mimicked silk but was many times stronger. Starting in 1933, polyethylene, the plastic used today in things like water bottles and plastic grocery bags, became one of the most versatile substances ever created. Through a process called injection molding, these plastics could be molded into almost any shape, creating countless possibilities for the plastic industry to act on.

While plastics were gaining popularity quickly, they were still not widely produced like they are today. This all changed during World War II. During the war, plastic production in the US quadrupled. Plastic was being used for everything from helmets to cockpit windows to parachutes. After the war, all of the plastic manufacturers that had started up during the war turned their gaze towards consumer products. Plastics began rapidly replacing other materials in everyday life. Then people started to realize that plastic also be used as packaging and could help store things for longer periods of time. This was the final push that assured that plastic would be at the forefront of innovation for decades to come.

Now, we face a challenge. The environmental impacts are too harmful for us to continue using plastic. We not only have to move away from putting plastics in our consumer goods, but we need to find ways to break down the plastic that is already trashing our world, and we have to do it soon. At this rate, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050. If we want to save our world, we need to take drastic measures to stop the plastic plague.

I used many sources, but I got most of my info from here:

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